Experiences and places shape identity more than DNA

Thomas Johnson couldn’t have helped me.

Johnson, my grandmother’s Norwegian grandfather, came to the United States from Christiania (now Oslo) in the early 1800s. He fought in our Civil War, so it’s not as if he didn’t know how to pitch in when he was needed.

But I was standing naked at the edge of an ice plunge bath in a co-ed spa locker room in Berlin, trying to gain the courage not only to jump in, but also to get back out, still naked, in the company of a few dozen strangers.


It was a situation in which having Thomas Johnson as my great-great-grandfather — and contributing to the fraction of Norwegian heritage in my DNA — was not going to help. I would have to rely on something more relevant.

It’s not that our DNA isn’t generally relevant. Increasingly, more of us are taking a tiptoe through the double-helixes, most commonly to learn a science-based answer to a child’s question: “Daddy, where did I come from?”

The technology to decipher DNA has become more accessible and more affordable. Genetic testing that for practical purposes was only for law enforcement, drug research and the very wealthy, is now available through kits that cost less than $150.

Among the most popular is 23andMe, a company that mails you a kit with sample containers that you drool into. Send it back and within a few weeks, 23andMe emails you a link to your results — your regional heritage, broken down into percentages. (The company also can factor in medical history and come up with conclusions about your health and potential issues.)

Similarly, National Geographic’s Geno 2.0 takes your drool and gives you a “breakdown of your regional ancestry by percentage, going as far back as 200,000 years,” as well as a “deep ancestry report” and a hint at “which famous ‘geniuses’ you could be related to.”

Among the outcomes of receiving the results, according to the folks at 23andMe, is that customers said they are more curious about the places…

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