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I thought I was British. Until I took a DNA test

Will genetic science change how we think about nationality? It has certainly changed how I think about mine

6 August 2016

9:00 AM

6 August 2016

9:00 AM

A declaration of nationality is a profound statement. To say ‘I am British’ suggests that somehow I am composed of Britishness — that my fabric, my very being, is British.

Except I personally, apparently, am not particularly British. The results are back from my DNA ethnicity test, and I am 63 per cent Irish, 20 per cent Western European, 11 per cent Scandinavian and 3 per cent Iberian. How do I feel about my nationality now?

Half a test-tube of saliva was all it took for Ancestry, the genealogical organisation, to come up with these figures and, once you get results like this, the immediate reaction is to say: ‘Well it doesn’t make any difference. I am British, born in England, of parents also born in England, and that’s that.’

Inevitably though, one then begins to speculate. Since my mother’s family was from Cork my Irish portion was predictable, but the Scandinavian element is more interesting. I am fair-haired and from the north of England, so a Viking forebear is an exciting thought. Was the clue, perhaps, in my name?

I am already feeling, you see, more international than I did. The things we associate with passport nationality, my cultural loyalties and sense of identity, have shifted. The medical effects of DNA analysis are often discussed; the political ones hardly at all.


In particular, DNA provides a new way of telling you who you are. In the UK, and England especially, we seem confused about this. The old certainties of race, religion and empire have gone — and the place in our hearts they once occupied has been filled with anything from jingoistic nostalgia to national self-loathing. As we find ourselves in the midst of one of history’s great migrations, it seems likely that angst about identity is only going to increase — and if the EU referendum proved anything, it is that people in Britain feel very differently indeed about who they are and where they belong.

But DNA sails above all this. You don’t need to argue or agonise. Instead, you have a pie chart. And whatever it shows, it is surprisingly hard not to feel some allegiance to the people and places whence you sprang. Now when I watch Scandinavian crime drama, I wonder: do I feel more of a connection with that stylishly bleak and watery landscape? It’s silly, but I fancy that I do.

As well as the ethnicity breakdown, my saliva test also offered some more specific information. My DNA was compared with that of others on Ancestry’s database and as a result I have now been put in touch with some 150 people throughout the world who have sections of DNA which match my own.

These matches are almost certainly related to me. Most are likely to be fourth or fifth cousins. Some use the site to post online profiles, and some include thumbnail photos of themselves. My jaw dropped when I clicked on Mark from Pennsylvania. He looks like me. Pattie from California could be my younger sister.

It is strangely moving to think these people actually are, genetically speaking, my own kind. My fancy for Swedish coastline might have been idle, but this is a more precise tool, adding the ties of family to those of ethnicity. So imagine: if you are a refugee exiled from your home soil, or even if you feel like a stranger in your own country, this is not only a way of defining who you are, but also of knowing the exact location of those who are like you.

As more of us have our DNA looked at, the numbers of people who can be connected with others of similar ethnicity will increase exponentially.

It is an intriguing and rather terrifying prospect. DNA clearly has the potential to be used in conjunction with, for example, ethnic cleansing. Take a test, and if you are not sufficiently what you are supposed to be, then you may suffer consequences. Or eugenics: I have no desire to collect my cousins together in the founding of a new Scando-Irish master race — but who’s to say that others, perhaps with a ‘purer’ result than mine, might not be so inclined? What, I wonder, would Adolf Hitler have done with technology like this? What will the next Hitler do with it?

These questions are all the more disquieting because the 21st century finds it almost impossible to discuss race in an honest fashion. But, since the gene genie has already exited the test tube, it might be an idea to start thinking now about how we are going to manage the political ramifications of his escape.

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