Table of contents
Table of contents
Podcast S1 E1 | 39 min

Is Your DNA You?

14 Aug 2018
In the first episode of SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human, anthropologists wrestle with the complexities of commercial DNA testing.

What does your DNA have to do with who you are? On a journey for answers, SAPIENS hosts Chip Colwell, Jen Shannon, and Esteban Gómez take consumer DNA tests and confront murky, interconnected issues of identity and heredity. Their guides include science journalist Carl Zimmer and anthropologists Deborah Bolnick and Kim TallBear.

Carl Zimmer has authored 13 books about science, including his latest work She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, which traces the history of heredity.

Deborah Bolnick is an incoming associate professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut. Her research interests include anthropological genetics, ancient DNA studies, paleoepigenetics, and a variety of other related subjects. Along with John Relethford, she authored the book Reflections of Our Past: How Human History is Revealed in Our Genes, which was published earlier this year.

Kim TallBear is an associate professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Native Studies. The University of Minnesota Press published her book Native American DNA in 2013.

Learn more about DNA:

I’ve Got the Neanderthal Blues by Emma Marris

The Ethical Battle Over Ancient DNA by Michael Balter

How Molecular Clocks Are Refining Human Evolution’s Timeline by Bridget Alex and Priya Moorjani

Ancestry Tests Pose a Threat to Our Social Fabric by John Edward Terrell

All music is produced and designed by Matthew Simonson.

SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

Read a transcript of this episode

Jen Shannon: [00:00:09] We just starting? [00:00:09][0.0] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:00:09] How do we start? [00:00:10][1.3] 

Chip Colwell: [00:00:10] I don’t know. [00:00:10][0.0] 

Jen Shannon: [00:00:14] All right, well, we’re all here. And some of us have never done this before. So … [00:00:18][4.1] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:00:18] Chip, what do you think? [00:00:18][0.0] 

Chip Colwell: [00:00:18] Maybe we should just start by introducing ourselves, right? [00:00:22][3.6] 

Jen Shannon: [00:00:23] Yeah, definitely. I’ll start. I’m Jen Shannon. I’m an associate professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and I’m also a curator in the Natural History Museum on campus. [00:00:33][10.5] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:00:35] Whoa, that’s a long title. I’m Dr. Esteban Gómez. [00:00:36][1.2] 

Jen Shannon: [00:00:37] I didn’t know we were going to drop the d-word. [00:00:39][1.1] 

Chip Colwell: [00:00:39] Yeah, I think technically we’re all doctors, right? [00:00:41][1.5] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:00:42] Yeah, sorry about that. I’m Esteban Gómez, a digital anthropologist at the University of Denver. [00:00:45][3.7] 

Chip Colwell: [00:00:46] And I’m Chip Colwell. I am a curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and also the editor-in-chief of [00:00:52][5.9] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:00:54] Well, that’s a pretty good start, but is that who we really are? [00:00:56][2.0] 

Jen Shannon: [00:00:58] Yeah, it’s us, but it’s not really us. [00:00:59][1.4] 

Chip Colwell: [00:01:00] OK, so I’ve got an idea, but I’m going to need each of you to give me a sample of your DNA. [00:01:05][4.7] 

Jen Shannon: [00:01:06] Pardon me? [00:01:07][0.2] 

Chip Colwell: [00:01:08] Just trust me. [00:01:11][3.0] 

Together: [00:01:11] INTRO [00:01:25][14.8] 

Chip Colwell: [00:01:29] OK, I got in the mail my DNA test. [00:01:34][5.6] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:01:36] All right, kiddo, let’s open this up. This is MyHeritage DNA. Do you like that box? Pretty cool. [00:01:40][3.6] 

Jen Shannon: [00:01:40] Move these things aside. I have a clean surface. I’ve got the two vials. [00:01:46][6.5] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:01:48] Remove one cheek swab from its wrapper and use the swab head to scrape the inside of one of your cheeks while rotating the swab for 30 to 60 seconds. [00:01:54][6.7] 

Chip Colwell: [00:01:54] One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. [00:01:54][0.0] 

Jen Shannon: [00:02:02] I’m vigorously swabbing and rolling around the swab on the inside of my cheek. [00:02:08][6.4] 

Chip Colwell: [00:02:09] I’ve kinda got to wonder what’s going to happen here. You know, you have your identity. You have your sense of self. You have your sense of history and heritage. And all that could either be confirmed or it could be challenged. Or you could be ambiguous. [00:02:30][21.2] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:02:35] All right, I’m rotating, I’m rotating the swab. [00:02:35][0.0] 

Chip Colwell: [00:02:35] 28, 29, 30. Putting that back in the vial. [00:02:41][6.3] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:02:42] Make sure the vial caps are closed tightly. [00:02:45][3.2] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:02:47] Place both vials on the cotton pad in the clear plastic bag and close the Ziploc. You following me here, Benjamin? [00:02:54][7.4] 

Jen Shannon: [00:02:56] Now, it seems really innocuous to just scrape the inside of your cheek, stick the Q-tip in a little bottle of liquid, and somehow that very simple action ends up in someone being able to read the building blocks of our body. [00:03:21][25.1] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:03:24] I think I got this, Benjamin. Should we do it? Wanna do it? Should we do it? Are we good? Alright, let’s do it. [00:03:26][1.7] 

Chip Colwell: [00:03:36] All right, so here we are back in the studio. So, what did you think of my surprise? Jen? [00:03:42][5.8] 

Jen Shannon: [00:03:43] It was interesting. [00:03:43][0.0] 

Chip Colwell: [00:03:43] OK. [00:03:43][0.0] 

Jen Shannon: [00:03:44] I got an email with some percentage numbers in it. [00:03:48][3.8] 

Chip Colwell: [00:03:48] Yeah? And what were those percentages? [00:03:49][0.7] 

Jen Shannon: [00:03:50] Well, I had sort of a map with some regions colored in, and the percentages were 53.3 percent North and Western European, 37.4 percent Italian, 6.5 percent North African, 2 percent Middle Eastern, and 0.8 percent Nigerian. [00:04:11][20.1] 

Chip Colwell: [00:04:12] Hmmmm, a tiny little corner of you. OK, Esteban, how about you? What did your email say? [00:04:16][4.3] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:04:17] Well, yeah, so I just got the email, and actually, I was gonna surprise you by actually swabbing my son, 9-month-old Benjamin, with the test, but … [00:04:25][8.0] 

Chip Colwell: [00:04:26] That’s what that was in the background. [00:04:26][0.1] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:04:26] Yeah, that was in the background. [00:04:28][1.6] 

Jen Shannon: [00:04:29] Your lab assistant. [00:04:29][0.6] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:04:31] Yeah, he was making sure the samples were clean. So, yeah. So, 79 percent Central American. I’m not entirely sure what that means. And then 17.2 percent European, which includes South Europe, Finland, and the Baltic region. And then 2.1 percent Middle Eastern and 1.7 percent Asian—in this case, West Asia. [00:04:55][24.0] 

Chip Colwell: [00:04:56] Wow, OK, so kind of all over. [00:04:56][0.2] 

Jen Shannon: [00:04:59] How about you, Chip? [00:04:59][0.4] 

Chip Colwell: [00:04:59] Yeah, so for me, I got results that suggest I’m about 53.8 percent Ashkenazi Jewish; 43.4 percent Irish, Scottish, and Welsh; 2 percent Middle Eastern. And, like you, I have a 0.8 percent Sephardic Jewish North African. So those are my numbers. So, how do you make sense of those numbers? Did they surprise you, Jen? You know, how did you react to them? [00:05:27][27.2] 

Jen Shannon: [00:05:28] Well, the truth is I didn’t really know what half of my background was. So, I was raised by my mom and my dad, who adopted me when I was quite young. So I always say I’m Italian by birth and Irish by osmosis. So really, the 90 percent European wasn’t surprising. And the fact that my mom was born in Italy, in a central mountain town, the being one-third Italian wasn’t surprising. I guess the rest of it is, the percentages are so specific. And I wonder … 0.8 percent, what does that mean? How far back in my family’s history does that go, and the other interesting thing to me is that I don’t really know from which side of my family these numbers come from on this list. [00:06:09][41.2] 

Chip Colwell: [00:06:09] Yeah, it just appears as like this is you. But it doesn’t really help you trace specific lineages per se. Great, so some questions about the big science behind … [00:06:18][8.4] 

Jen Shannon: [00:06:18] Yeah, I really want to know how they get to such specific percentages. And also, you know, what that means, and if that can tell us something about the timeline and how far back an ancestor is part of our family history to have that percentage. [00:06:32][13.3] 

Chip Colwell: [00:06:32] Yeah, great questions. How about you, Esteban? How did you react? Did you, like, share these numbers with your family, or, you know, how did you feel about all this? [00:06:41][9.1] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:06:42] Yeah, you know, it, you know, I’m not entirely, I guess, too interested in some of these kits. But I know that my family is really interested in knowing their family background. So they’ve been doing for the past, I don’t know, couple of months, and my mom and sister will spend about an hour or two hours every other day just kind of like looking at, you know, what they are, you know, doing some research online, specifically on, kind of, you know, looking at their family history. There is this one case where one of their ancestors or somebody within the family died from insult, you know, and so they randomly texted me one day and said, you know, “What does this mean?” I’m like, I don’t know. That’s kind of interesting, you know, and so they, they’ve spent a lot of time on this and are really interested in it. I’m really interested in the social implications, like how are these results being used by different groups, by different institutions? [00:07:35][53.5] 

Chip Colwell: [00:07:36] OK, fantastic. So for me, actually kind of interesting because like both, both of you, I have family members who are into genealogy and trying to understand the family’s past. So like my dad spent like several years in retirement tracing out my family’s history. He went to Europe, he even went to a tiny little town in England called Colwell, knocked on some, as it turned out, little old lady’s door, and tried to find other Colwells, so like super into it, he has this massive chart of our family’s history on my dad’s side. And so it’s like on the one hand you have this like kinship and genealogy and the other hand now we have these, like really, these really concrete results and the results left me a little puzzled. So, for example, it leaves out England when we think a lot of the family history does come from England, and it’s also to me a weird jumble of ethnicity and nationality and region, so, you know, what does it mean to be Ashkenazi Jewish but also Irish but also Middle Eastern? So, I’m, you know, what do those concepts really mean for people, you know, ethnicity versus nationality versus geography. So I think my biggest question is, is like how do humans think about heredity? How do we think about what it is we pass on how, how do we think about what it is we inherit? [00:08:58][82.2] 

Jen Shannon: [00:09:00] Yeah, that sounds good. [00:09:01][0.6] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:09:01] Yeah. Sounds great. [00:09:02][0.4] 

Chip Colwell: [00:09:02] Yeah, so hopefully we’ll, we’ll go out and get some of those answers and then let’s meet back here and talk some more. [00:09:08][5.9] 

Jen Shannon: [00:09:08] Perfect. [00:09:08][0.0] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:09:09] Sounds good. [00:09:09][0.1] 

Chip Colwell: [00:09:10] Alright, see you soon. [00:09:10][0.1] 

Deborah Bolnick: [00:09:19] So the saliva or cheek swab sample are usually mixed with some kind of a solution to preserve them after they’ve been taken away from your body. [00:09:32][13.1] 

Jen Shannon: [00:09:32] This is Deborah Bolnick. She’s a professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut, and she’s been studying DNA tests like the ones we took for a long time. I called her up a few weeks ago because I was looking for some answers. How do we know anything about DNA and how accurate and honest are these tests? Basically, I wanted to know how they took a sample of cells from my cheek and turned it into a string of super-specific percentages. [00:09:56][23.2] 

Deborah Bolnick: [00:09:57] And then initially in the laboratory, there’s a process of essentially just mixing that saliva sample with a variety of chemicals that will break down the cell walls and start to allow the different components of the cells to separate and come apart. [00:10:16][19.6] 

Jen Shannon: [00:10:17] And one of those components is DNA, right? But DNA is so tiny. [00:10:20][3.2] 

Deborah Bolnick: [00:10:21] Yes, it’s really, really tiny. It’s not something that we can just look at and see the molecules. And so, typically, there is some kind of a process of making copies of the sections of DNA that are of interest in order to be able to analyze it. And then there are a variety of different technologies that have been developed that allow us to read, if you will, the DNA sequence. And not knowing which company you used and exactly what the protocols are for each company, I don’t know exactly which method they use to assess those. I don’t know if maybe you can tell me a little bit more about what kind of data you got back so that I know more specifically what kinds of analyses they ran. [00:11:15][53.8] 

Jen Shannon: [00:11:16] Sure. So, I kind of got two kinds of information back. I got what they called the DNA kit, which was an Excel sheet filled with a bunch of numbers, and then basically I got five percentages, so 53 percent North and West European; 3 percent Italian, which wasn’t surprising because I’m first generation Italian; and then 6.5 percent North African, 2 percent Middle Eastern, and 0.8 percent Nigerian. [00:11:44][28.0] 

Deborah Bolnick: [00:11:45] OK. Yeah, so to get … for them to produce those kinds of percentages, what they’re doing is targeting a whole suite of single, what are called single nucleotide polymorphisms or single-letter variants throughout your genome, throughout all of the DNA in your cell. And so they’re looking at these places in our DNA where we have different molecules that we represent by the letters A, T, C, and G. [00:12:13][27.9] 

Jen Shannon: [00:12:14] I recognize those from biology class. A is adenine, C is cytosine, G is guanine, and T is thiamine. But, what exactly are they doing with those letters? [00:12:23][9.2] 

Deborah Bolnick: [00:12:24] What they’re doing is looking at a particular point and seeing whether you have an A at that position, for example, or say a T there or in another position; whether you have a C or perhaps you have a G; and they’re making note of those for presumably hundreds of thousands of those positions in the DNA. With that kind of information, they’re then comparing those results from your DNA to a database containing that kind of information for many other people that have been previously studied. And looking to see where are there similarities in the genetic markers that you have, the As and Ts that you have and similar markers found in the DNA of other individuals in this database. And the, the broad assumptions that they’re making here is that if you share a significant number of these markers with people from another place in their database, then those are individuals that you are related to, that you share those genetic similarities because you’ve inherited them from a common ancestor at some point in the past. [00:13:37][73.8] 

Jen Shannon: [00:13:38] So it really depends on who’s in the database. [00:13:40][2.0] 

Deborah Bolnick: [00:13:41] It depends a lot on who’s in the database. That’s a really critical piece of this equation. And in particular, one thing to note is that while they’re framing the results that they give you as telling you about your ancestors, where your ancestors lived, where they came from, what ethnic groups they were affiliated with, what they’re actually comparing your DNA to are DNA samples predominantly from other people who are alive today. So they’re making an inference from where people live today that are related to you to claim something about the past. [00:14:19][37.8] 

Jen Shannon: [00:14:19] So for instance, let’s say I have an actual family member in Italy, which I do, and they maybe did this process with a different company, then our material would not be matched against each other because it’s my understanding that, you know, from what you’re saying is that each company has its own database. [00:14:37][18.0] 

Deborah Bolnick: [00:14:38] Yeah. So each company has its own database. The specific contents of that database are proprietary. We don’t know all of the details about who is included in that database. Companies will tell us usually broad numbers about, we have so many thousands of people, thousands of samples in our database. We have samples that represent 42 different geographic regions in the world or 56 different ethnicities, but very rarely, probably not ever as far as I know, do these companies actually provide specific details about how many samples come from a particular place. And if they say that we have samples in our database that represent, say, Northern Italian ancestry or ethnicity, we don’t really know what that means. Does that mean that they’ve sampled 20 people, or have they sampled 5,000? If they’ve sampled 5,000 people, do all 5,000 people come from Rome or do all 5,000 people come from Florence or are they scattered across many different communities in Italy and depending on where those samples come from, it could affect sort of what kinds of comparisons can be made and it could be then that if their samples are really concentrated in one portion of that region, when they tell you that you have 20 percent Northern Italian ancestry, what they’re really telling you is that in your DNA, maybe about 20 percent of your DNA looks very similar to DNA samples that they’ve collected from this particular place in Italy in the last few years. If your ancestors come from Italy but came from a different part of Italy, and that other part wasn’t sampled for their database, then the results might not be as accurate. They might misdiagnose that genetic pattern and think that it comes from somewhere else. They might not know exactly where the most similar people live today. And then the other complication, of course, is that if we’re making comparisons with people alive today, we don’t necessarily know for sure if the patterns of variation that we see in the world today are exactly the same as those that existed in generations past. The genetic variants that we see in Northern Italy today might have been there five generations ago or five generations ago, maybe individuals with those genetic markers lived in what’s now the Czech Republic or lived in France and, so, where the tests are assuming that the patterns we see today are accurate representations of where people lived in the past. But migration could complicate that. [00:17:37][179.0] 

Jen Shannon: [00:17:38] Yeah, this does sound really complicated. Way more complicated than what you get from the 23andMe ads you see on TV. I saw one recently that showed a woman visiting all these exotic locales and participating in local culture, dancing with people in the street, sitting in a sauna, and, when she was sitting in that sauna, it showed a graphic that said 3 percent Scandinavian. [00:18:01][22.5] 

Background voice: [00:18:02] Know how your DNA connects you to the world. [00:18:03][1.7] 

Deborah Bolnick: [00:18:05] Yeah, it’s telling you you’re related to people who live in a particular place or identify with a particular ethnic group today, but that doesn’t necessarily tell us where your shared ancestors lived in the past or what ethnicity they identified with. I mean, we know, that ethnic identities are very, very fluid. They change sometimes, identities change within a person’s lifetime, someone may identify with one ethnic group as a child and they may come to identify in a different way as an adult. They may identify in different ways in different contexts, but there are some people who may identify with in one way when they’re around some people and have affiliations that they identify with in another way when they’re around other people. As people have moved across time and space as political and economic situations change, our group affiliations (the groups that we feel like we are members with) may change through time as well, and so I identify as American. My grandmother was American, my great-grandmother was Russian. You go back another generation or two before that, and people identified as Ukrainian or Hungarian. And so, I know just within four, five, six generations in my own family, the ethnic identities have shifted even while the DNA markers have stayed the same. And so that linkage of … is complicated. There are … there is overlap there. There are some connections, but it’s not, it’s not a perfect connection. Our ethnic identities don’t map exactly onto the DNA markers that we possess in our bodies and vice versa. [00:19:52][106.5] 

Kim TallBear: [00:20:02] It’s shocking to me … the conversation in the public has not really moved along. You’ve got the same stereotypes about what you can understand from a DNA test, the same kinds of misconceptions, scientists that are working for DNA testing companies may be developing new iterations of tests. They may have, you know, greater panels of markers. But we’re still at the same place in terms of the conversation of how these technologies are intersecting with Native American and other forms of racial identities and I just … [00:20:30][27.9] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:20:30] This is Dr. Kim TallBear. When I think about the sociocultural implications of DNA testing technology, I usually think about her book Native American DNA. It’s about the ways this new technology has impacted Indigenous communities in North America. And it’s a great access point for the broader issues at play. [00:20:46][16.0] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:20:47] Kim, I know you were working with Indigenous communities before you became an anthropologist. When the U.S. government first started funding genome mapping research, what was the tenor of the conversation in Indigenous communities? [00:20:57][10.1] 

Kim TallBear: [00:20:58] So I was immediately really fascinated with these conversations because people immediately started worrying about the uniqueness of Indigenous genomes and was there going to be some sort of biological warfare that could happen or what’s going to happen with race, you know. These very essentialist ideas about what a Native American genome might look like. And worries. And so I thought, I do not have the skills necessary to answer these questions, and I wanted to dig in deep and that’s when I decided to go back and do a Ph.D. to think about these questions and write what eventually became the book Native American DNA. [00:21:29][31.0] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:21:29] Let’s talk about the consumer DNA kits like the one I took. What I want to know is, and I know this is a big question, why are so many people taking these tests and asking what does my DNA mean? [00:21:40][10.2] 

Kim TallBear: [00:21:40] Well, I mostly think about Native American DNA. So there are a lot of different answers, I think, that you can give for that, for that question. But I do think there is a desire in a country that largely thinks of itself as an immigrant country like the United States to want to understand sort of the deeper meaning of one’s identity. I think a lot of people maybe don’t feel that it’s sufficient to be connected to this landscape over here or don’t feel sufficiently connected to these continents and are really interested in kind of privileging that kind of human ancestry in another part of the world. I mean, I can … that’s my diplomatic answer [chuckles]. [00:22:14][34.1] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:22:16] OK, but, I’d love to hear your nondiplomatic answer. [00:22:18][1.7] 

Kim TallBear: [00:22:18] Right. So I think, I think there’s a strong desire by a lot of people who do not primarily descend from ancient populations in the Americas to feel a greater sense of belonging to a place. You know, despite all the rhetoric about the U.S. being an immigrant country, which, of course, I don’t think that is something that should apply to African-Americans, most of them, anyway, whose ancestors were brought over here forcibly. But despite all of that rhetoric, though, there’s still a desire or a feeling that people have, I think, that they that they don’t sufficiently belong. There’s also been a good deal of scholarship that’s been done by historians and anthropologists who look at the desire to play Indian. And Philip Deloria, who is a historian who’s now at Harvard. He’s the son of Vine Deloria Jr., who is probably the greatest native American studies scholar of the 20th century. But Phil Deloria wrote this book Playing Indian, which, I think, was published back in 1998, where he traces this history of playing Indian, of dressing up in costumes and putting on face paint, and all of this this goes back to before the Revolutionary War. And so you already have people trying to dress up as natives and feel a greater sense of belonging to the continents over here. And you will know that in the 19th century of course, in the mid-to-late 19th century, the assumption was there was a great certainty that Indigenous populations would be either fully exterminated or would pass away because they could not live in the face of the encroaching civilization. So there was a lot of confidence on the part of the nation states, the U.S. and Canada, I think, that Indigenous people would be completely disappeared by the early-to-mid 20th century. Of course, that’s not the case. And then, when at that moment when the vanishing native trope is so alive and so present to the turn of the 20th century in the U.S., that’s the moment, by the way, when you see sports mascots emerge. When it becomes OK to dress up as an Indian and put on face paint. And it’s that moment when were, were our ancestors are thought to be almost eradicated anyway, and so the representations of our peoples are there to be taken up by non-native people, to help them belong more, to almost become Indigenous to this place. That’s my nondiplomatic answer. [00:24:31][132.6] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:24:33] Wow, that’s really fascinating. This idea of belonging. I want to hear more about how it connects with these DNA tests today. What did you observe in your research? [00:24:40][7.7] 

Kim TallBear: [00:24:41] Well, so, most of the people that I’ve worked with, because I ended up in this particular online community where they were discussing genetic ancestry tests and taking a lot of it and a lot of them, and it just so happens that that tends to be a kind of segregated world because people that identify as white Americans or WASP or European American or whatever term they use, they tend to be looking, of course, for ancestry, predominantly in Europe. So you get all the white folks on one list serve or one place and then a lot of the African-Americans who were looking, of course, for ancestry from Africa, you know, in trying to repair some of that historical gaps that were caused by the middle passage in the enslavement of their ancestors. They’re, of course, all congregating in another area, right, because they’re primarily looking towards Africa for their ancestry. And class came into this as well; they were actually a very middle- or upper-middle-class group of people who were largely retired people who had a lot of time to do genealogy, to be online, to attend genealogy conferences, to take different iterations of DNA tests, so these were people with disposable income. They were also often people who were highly educated and often in STEM fields. So it was a really privileged group that I ended up studying, and so for them, because they were so secure, I think, in their identities and their class position, they weren’t looking to shift from identifying as white people to identifying as something else. Often, even when they found Native American ancestry, and some of them would find it and others wouldn’t. But that’s really different than, say, the populations that my anthropologist friend Circe Sturm studied when she wrote her book Becoming Indian. She largely studied poor, white people in the South and people who were very consciously shifting from a white identity to a Cherokee or Native American identity, and there was some DNA testing happening in that group, and it was really interesting to read my work against hers because I’m studying this class-privileged group of white folks and she’s studying this class-disadvantaged group of white folks, and the class-disadvantaged people were much more interested in making claims to being Cherokee, and, of course, there was a sense of probably disappointment in their experience as white people. They were poor people, many of them, and they hadn’t accessed the same privileges as the group that I was studying. So I thought that was really interesting. And then there is, I think just in general, there, there are a whole lot of white, a whole lot of people particularly in the South of the United States, the South and the Southeast who, there’s a, there is a real strong desire down there to identify as Cherokee and a few other tribes, so I do find this sort of nationalist mythology that one has an Indian in the family particularly strong in the South and the Southeast. [00:27:17][156.1] 

Chip Colwell: [00:27:28] Hi again. This is Chip speaking and I’ve got one last thing to share with you. So when I’m not editing SAPIENS magazine or spending time with my family, I work as a curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. And there we recently hosted science journalist Carl Zimmer to discuss his new book, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity. And I’d like to share an excerpt of that conversation with you. So we’re going to start with the time that Carl got his own DNA tested. [00:27:58][29.8] 

Carl Zimmer: [00:27:59] It was pretty amazing. I mean this geneticist emailed me and said that he was hosting a meeting and there was a DNA-sequencing company that was offering to sequence people’s genomes and look at them for certain diseases. So, basically, he was saying, Do you want to get your genome sequenced? And, this was a couple years ago, and I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I was, like when I started writing about science, if someone said, You want to get your genome sequenced?, it would be like saying, You want to go to another galaxy? like, you know, sure, but I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon. But here it was. So yeah. So I jumped at it. It took a little while, but I was able to get hold of the raw data on a hard drive, just showed up at my door one day. There’s my genome. And then I would take it to scientists. And you know, it was very funny because, like, they’ve never seen a person whose genome they study. They were like, What. [00:28:53][54.3] 

Chip Colwell: [00:28:54] Always anonymous or? [00:28:55][0.6] 

Carl Zimmer: [00:28:55] Yeah, they just get, they just get data, you know, it’s just data for them. You know, people have studied thousands and thousands of genomes, you know, I’d go to them and they’d be like, Oh, you’re the first person I’ve ever seen. And, you know, and one of them, you know, he said, Oh, so you really want us to, like, dig in there and tell you everything and do anal-; he said, Oh, I could never do that. Oh, God I would be so terrified. Give that to me. You know he just couldn’t wait to analyze it. So it was really fascinating, just to sort of see, you know, my genome is just one of many genomes. It’s nothing special but, but it is fascinating to look at these billions of letters and, and to see like, you know, how it is at the end, one end of a long, long line of heredity. And, you know, the things that I inherited genetically from, from my parents and their parents and so on, is, is this amazing labyrinth of genetic information. [00:29:53][57.4] 

Chip Colwell: [00:29:54] What does the code actually look like? Is it ones and zeros or is it the base pairs of genes with various letters? Can you visualize for us what, when you’re staring at your own genome, what does it look like? [00:30:06][12.8] 

Carl Zimmer: [00:30:08] It looks like a horrible spreadsheet because the way the way the technology works is that they basically smash DNA into pieces, and they’re each about, you know, your genes, or you can think of them as being strings of letters, and the alphabet of DNA is just four different letters. And so you have these strings of letters a couple hundred letters long, and they make lots and lots of copies of these. And so there are there are, I forget how many, there are many, many billions of these fragments just arrayed in a spreadsheet like the letters and … [00:30:45][37.4] 

Chip Colwell: [00:30:46] Just row after row … [00:30:46][0.3] 

Carl Zimmer: [00:30:46] Yeah. And really, like, when you start off with a genome that’s it … it’s like, “Have fun.” And so what a lot of what scientists have to do is they have to say OK, this fragment—Where, where, where did this come from? You know, they have to figure out, they have to find a place in some chromosome where it belongs. So it’s the most insane jigsaw puzzle you can imagine. And that takes a huge amount of computing power, but once you’ve got that, then you can look and say, Aha, so you have a variant for this or you have these variants, suggest you have this ancestry, or these came from Neanderthals. You can start to do amazing stuff once you’ve got it all put together. [00:31:28][41.3] 

Chip Colwell: [00:31:29] And so are you a Neanderthal? [00:31:30][1.2] 

Carl Zimmer: [00:31:33] Ah, you know … [00:31:33][0.4] 

Chip Colwell: [00:31:34] Not that I suspect it, looking at you I just … you know. [00:31:35][0.5] 

Carl Zimmer: [00:31:37] I’m looking right back at you, bro. You and me both! [00:31:38][0.7] 

Chip Colwell: [00:31:40] I probably am too. [00:31:40][0.2] 

Carl Zimmer: [00:31:41] Not probably, you are. No, everybody, everybody, everybody who has some non-African ancestry is has about 1 percent Neanderthal DNA in their genome. Oh, and that’s because humans, after they evolved in Africa, one group expanded out and encountered Neanderthals probably in the Near East and in Asia, maybe in Europe. And there just a lot of sex. They’re clearly like it wasn’t just a one-night thing. No, there were many, you actually you can start to sort of catalogue the one-night stands almost. There was a lot of stuff happening in China. I don’t know why, but whatever. And that DNA has been passed down through the generations. Much of it’s been lost. What’s really weird, though, is that, you know, there weren’t a lot of Neanderthals before they became extinct 40,000 years ago. There are a lot of humans, modern humans on Earth today. And so there’s actually much, much more Neanderthal DNA on Earth today than when there were Neanderthals. [00:32:55][73.4] 

Chip Colwell: [00:32:57] So being a science writer, you must have reported some years ago when it was discovered that most humans do carry some traces of Neanderthal DNA. But for you, staring at all of those letters and seeing the sequence yourself and knowing for certain that you do carry that within you, did it change at all your sense of identity or your sense of connection to history or humanity, or did it change your sense of being at all? [00:33:29][32.0] 

Carl Zimmer: [00:33:32] It’s not, like, I’m going to go out and, you know, try to kill elk with a spear. I mean, I did not inherit those sorts of skills from Neanderthals. But, but, it was pretty amazing because they didn’t, you know, if you go to a place like 23andMe, they can give you like a percentage. I went to some scientists who said, like, OK, we don’t care about percentage, we want to show you the genes. And so they just, they were able to zero in and just say like, OK, you have here, here are several hundred Neanderthal genes that you inherited, and your Neanderthal genes are probably different than mine. Maybe overlap a bit, but anyway, there they are. And it is kind of, kind of remarkable to say like OK, I can say that I got that gene from somebody 60,000 years ago maybe. And that is, I think it does give you this profound connection to the past. You don’t question. The problem is that, you know, as soon as we start to get some clue to our heredity, we get really hungry: We want all the answers at once. So I’m sitting there with a scientist and I’m like, here’s your list of Neanderthal genes; I’m like, well, what does that one do? And he’s like, I’ve never heard of that one before. Let’s look it up. He looks it up, and nobody knows what that gene does. And that’s very common for human genes, like, we don’t really know what most of them actually do. [00:35:01][88.4] 

Chip Colwell: [00:35:03] And so in a really, in a very real way as you say, you know genetics is part of the heredity puzzle, but it’s only one part. In what other ways can we think about heredity beyond genetics? [00:35:15][12.0] 

Carl Zimmer: [00:35:16] I talk about a few different ways in the book. One of them is culture, and that’s very special to us humans. We, you know, we don’t just inherit genes from our parents, we inherit languages, we inherit customs, we inherit all sorts of knowledge and culture really works as sort of a separate channel of heredity in humans. And the reason that that works has to do with some interesting things like, you know, we can teach kids, which in the animal kingdom is almost unheard of. Like they’re very … [00:35:54][37.7] 

Chip Colwell: [00:35:54] Doesn’t happen. [00:35:54][0.1] 

Carl Zimmer: [00:35:55] Doesn’t happen, you know. Meerkats, maybe. But … [00:35:59][3.7] 

Chip Colwell: [00:35:59] What do meerkats teach? [00:36:00][0.6] 

Carl Zimmer: [00:36:00] Meerkats help their young learn how to kill scorpions, you know, so the grown-up meerkat will, will grab a scorpion and just almost completely kill it and then give it to its young and say, OK, you finish it off. And watch and then say, and then later will come back with a slightly less, almost-dead scorpion and say like, OK, now try this. And then the baby meerkat gets better and better until it can go off and kill scorpions itself. [00:36:30][29.0] 

Chip Colwell: [00:36:30] That was a totally fascinating sidebar. Kind of irrelevant … [00:36:32][2.3] 

Carl Zimmer: [00:36:33] I know, but that’s what happens with heredity. [00:36:36][3.3] 

Chip Colwell: [00:36:36] But with people, so that’s what we’re doing essentially is we’re passing along our culture, teachings and learning and knowledge, and that in a sense becomes our inheritance just as much as our genes might. [00:36:50][13.1] 

Carl Zimmer: [00:36:50] Right. And in a way, I would argue that it’s what made the agricultural revolution possible because we were passing down culture, we were building on that culture, and then passing down that cumulative culture to the next generation. So now people would know all sorts of things about how to farm in a place, things they could never figure out on their own. And that led to, you know, ironically, that led to heredity in its original sense. Now people started to have all this extra stuff. They ate extra food, they had wealth, they had houses that they could then pass down. And so that’s where heredity in its original sense comes from. From cultural heredity. [00:37:32][41.8] 

Chip Colwell: [00:37:34] Carl Zimmer, thank you very much. [00:37:35][0.4] 

Chip Colwell: [00:37:41] So Jen, Estéban, what do you two think? After all we’ve learned, are we ready to try our introductions again? [00:37:48][6.6] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:37:48] Definitely. [00:37:48][0.0] 

Jen Shannon: [00:37:49] Yeah. [00:37:49][0.0] 

Chip Colwell: [00:37:49] OK. So I’ll start. My name is Chip Colwell, and I am the person that my parents raised me to be. [00:37:57][7.1] 

Esteban Gómez: [00:37:57] And I’m Esteban Gómez. And I’m going to continuously look into my past. [00:38:03][5.2] 

Jen Shannon: [00:38:04] My name is Jen Shannon, and I still see myself as Italian by birth and Irish by osmosis. And so does my family. [00:38:10][6.0] 

Chip Colwell: [00:38:11] And this is SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human. [00:38:14][3.0] 

Chip Colwell: [00:38:17] This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Paul Karolyi, edited by Matthew Simonson, and hosted by myself, Chip Colwell; Esteban Gómez; and Jen Shannon. SAPIENS producer Arielle Milkman, executive producer Cat Jaffee, and House of Pod intern Lucy Soucek provided additional support. Chris Weeber is our fact checker. Our cover art was created by David Williams. Our theme music is by Matthew Simonson. Thanks this time to our guests Deborah Bolnick, Kim TallBear, and Carl Zimmer, as well as the team from C-SPAN who kindly shared the recordings of Carl and me. Thanks also to Jamie Hodgkins for guidance on her DNA journey; Danilyn Rutherford, Maugha Kenny, and the entire staff, board, and advisory council of the Wenner-Gren Foundation; Amanda Mascarelli, Daniel Salas, Chris Weeber, Aaron Brooks, and everyone at SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and produced by House of Pod. See you next time, fellow sapiens! [00:38:17][0.0][2113.7]


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