“Who am I?”
Whether it’s while drunk at the dark end of an all-night bender, the fragile light of a new day shaming you into yet another episode of “Dear lord, what happened to me? I’m supposed to be an adult by now,” or a more innocent pondering after your mum casually drops the fact that her grandfather fought for the French on the frontlines of Operation Overlord before retiring to a well-earned quiet life in Somerset (or something) – it’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves.
For me, a thoroughly white male born and bred in the heart of the Welsh valleys, with immediate family members from exotic places as far flung as Pontypridd and Coventry, it was a question born more from a need for excitement than anything else. A bit of adventure in the old bloodline, a reliable conversation starter to fall back on when you’re stuck in some networking nightmare with nowhere left to turn.
“Hi, I’m Zack, I’m from Wales and no, I don’t speak Welsh, the education system is terrible” really doesn’t go very far. I thought, maybe, if I knew where my bloodlines came from, I could add a spicy little garnish on top. A cheeky “but my great-great-great-great Grandmother was a Swedish pirate responsible for bringing the Celsius temperature scale to the British islands” on the side. Anything to break up the monotony of “white guy from the countryside born of other white people from slightly different, but geographically adjacent, countrysides.”
23andMe: A whole new world
So I turned to 23andMe, one of the world’s premier DNA genetic testing and analysis companies. Named after the 23 pairs of chromosomes found in a normal human cell, 23andMe will take your DNA and tell you exactly what you’re made of and where you came from. While it’s almost contrived to say that your DNA is the blueprint to who you are, that doesn’t stop it being true, and by testing your DNA, 23andMe will be able to tell you pretty much everything about you, from whether you’re more likely to feel the effects of caffeine, all the way up to whether your bloodline originated in North Africa or the heart of Asia.
Needless to say, I was excited. It was exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. And, firmly beating down all concerns about data protection in a post-GDPR and Cambridge Analytica world, I sent off for a kit.
It arrived promptly in a neat little box. Inside is the tube you need to spit into, and instructions on how to spit properly for those lucky enough to not go to a terrible terrible high school. The whole process is surprisingly quick and straightforward: spit in the tube (after no food or drink for 30 minutes, we don’t want any DNA hybrids here), close the clasp, give it a shake, and pop it back in the box to post it off. Off it went to some lab in Denmark and off I went to awkwardly skirt around the periphery of such-and-such networking drinks for some dude doing a thing while mainlining house red wine and tiny burgers, praying to all of the gods I don’t believe in that no one came to speak to me.
The whole process was refreshingly quick and in just a few short weeks I received an email saying that my report was available to view online. “Finally,” I thought, “the answers I’ve always wanted, the key to a renewed sense of adventure and wonder at the complexity of human evolution that led to the thing that is me is right here in my hand.” I logged in with bated breath…
And, oh… right. Behold the pinnacle of evolutionary mundanity, the “meh” to the miracle of life. This is the Stoneboy of the DC Cinematic Universe, the Tim Henman of genetics. I am the human embodiment of daytime TV writ neatly in a 10-pack biro upon a budget canvas from The Works. In another word: boring.
“The very blueprints that make me me are the directions to somewhere you probably don’t want to go, delivered by someone who can’t be bothered to give them to you”
91% British and Irish? 6.9% “Broadly Northwestern European”? Where’s the salesmanship, the pizzazz? I mean – has there ever been a more disappointing word than “broadly”? If you ask for directions and someone tells you “it’s broadly down there, mate,” it sucks. What they’re basically saying is that they can’t bothered being specific because there’s no point, it’s too obvious, and you’re implicitly a bit dull for not being able to work it out. Well, that’s what I am. The very blueprints that make me me are the directions to somewhere you probably don’t want to go, delivered by someone who can’t be bothered to give them to you. The European’s European.
The bright side
All of this isn’t to sell 23andMe short. The service they provide is speedy and impeccable, and as profoundly mundane as my report may be, I know that many others have discovered all manner of very cool things about themselves (like our very own editor Holly who discovered a Jewish background she had no idea about, leading to an awkward conversation in which she discovered that no one knows who her great-grandad is).
For a more jolly anecdote: when I next saw my mother post DNA-reveal, armed with all of the knowledge I’d ever need to prove that her little boy wasn’t remotely special and, in fact, the long years of teenage angst-driven melancholy at the general insignificance of his life against the incomprehensible backdrop of the infinite universe proved oddly prescient – I found out something interesting. Turns out that that 1.5% French and German ancestry wiggling away inside me is derived from my Mother’s German great grandfather who, for reasons we can only begin to guess at, moved to Wales in the mid 19th Century. It’s the reason, she explained, that her name is spelt the Germanic way, Elisabeth rather than Elizabeth.
And, with that, I felt an odd sense of comfort, like a jigsaw piece I had never seen fitting into a place I had never been aware of. And therein lies the beauty of doing something like 23andMe; it opens doors to a sense of belonging and community that you may have otherwise never known were there. And to that end, I apparently have 978 3rd-to-5th cousins across the world who have all used the service, actual people who share my actual genes (no matter how tangentially) that I can actually contact. Now that’s pretty cool – not to mention convenient if you’re the travelling sort on the lookout for sofas to crash on.
The “Ancestry” section of 23andMe is just one part of offerings on the table, with a whole lot more hidden inside the “Health” section. A lot of the info in here is interesting in a mildly diverting sort of way – for example, I now know I’m unlikely to flush due to alcohol and I’m genetically predisposed to be tolerant of lactose. And while it’s interesting to see things you take for granted in your day-to-day life grounded in your genetics (e.g. I’m genetically likely to consume more caffeine and, oh boy, don’t even go there) these little tidbits don’t offer much outside of a way of killing any unwanted conversation dead in it’s tracks: “Hey, fancy a coffee?”, “I don’t, but MY GENES DO.”
Not dying, yay!
Having said that, where 23andMe and its service really shines is with its Genetic Health Risk reports. It’s here that you can find out if you have certain genetic variants that are typically known to increase your chance of contracting some of the more malevolent diseases out there – cancer, Parkinson’s, dementia, all those lovely lot. With several family members sporting all manner of cancers and a grandfather struck down by a very nasty case of Parkinson’s, I was particularly eager to find out how doomed I may or may not be (while also, y’know, equally keen to never find out and live in ignorance forevermore).
Kudos where it’s due, 23andMe goes to pains to explain the context of these tests, offering explanations for how and why the tests are done (with diagrams for the academically minded out there) while also going out of their way to emphasise that the test results are not conclusive statements of fact, but merely a singular signifier to diseases that can be caused and exacerbated by, well, pretty much anything according to the newspapers these days. I also appreciated the fact that they locked the results behind a separate, additional permissions page to help protect those who would rather not know.
Thankfully, I found I wasn’t at higher risk for any of the nasties behind the door — but I’m only too aware that’s not a guarantee I won’t still get them.
What you get out of a service like 23andMe depends largely on what you put into it. In my case, I invested the greater part of my hopes and dreams for all future social interaction and came out with a great big pot of genetic gruel (granted, this is entirely my fault, but a man can dream). For others, it could be the start of a whole new adventure, a call-to-arms to go wading Indiana Jones style into their own personal history, or it could connect you to family you would never have known, or it could, quite simply, offer a small slice of DNA-fuelled medical peace of mind.
At the very least, I got myself a new intro:
“Hi, I’m Zack, I’m genetically underwhelming but can be reasonably confident of avoiding several terrible diseases for the foreseeable future.”
And you know what, I’ll take that.