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23 & me

Ava Haider


We’ve all heard: there are companies that can help trace your ancestry, and in the process, answer your deep, existential questions via ‘simple and effective’ DNA tests: “why am I here? Is that inner feeling that I am part Jewish maybe not totally off?” 


23andMe is one such test. A pioneer in the business of ancestry, it has served five million people since it first began in 2006. In its mission to “help people access, understand and benefit from the human genome”, it connects over five million people around the world through what is essentially, a gene data bank. They “analyze, compile and distill your DNA information” to give you some brand new ‘facts’ about yourself: “Ancestry Composition”, “Haplogroups” and “Neanderthal Ancestry” are just a few of the new ways you can now talk about yourself at a party (forget name, age, and where your current digs are). And all it takes is two seconds of delicately scraping your cheek, tucking the swab into a little plastic baggy and sending it off.


The 23andMe website boasts multiple success stories: Take Francisco, who while identifying as a ‘Latino Christian Portuguese’ was always convinced that something in his culture “never felt quite right to him.” We know what you’re thinking: this is the language of so many coming-out stories. But here, Francisco was able to sidestep the trauma that big reveals like coming out often entail, and simply ‘test’ his intuition: thanks to 23andMe, he was able to find his “paternal haplogroup” (remember high school bio? This is what defines mutations in your mitochondrial DNA or your Y chromosome). His turned out to be shared with 20-30% of Sephardic Jews. 


Similarly, Jeannie -- another 23andme smiling ambassador -- grew up Christian, but felt “in her heart” that she was Jewish and spent her earliest years attending bar mitzvahs. Thanks to the test, she was able to confirm that her discomfort had a real thing behind it: the test revealed that she was in part, Ashkenazi Jew. 


To be “93% European Jewish, 2% Iberian Peninsula, 1% European South, 1% Middle East” or “35% Irish” or “76% Finnish”, seems to deliver to people a sense of things falling into place. Closer to home, my own grandmother -- who is of Parsi origin -- was keen to do the test because she was curious movements of her own family before they settled hundreds and hundreds of years in Iran. Another friend Rina*, who also did the test, reported her great disappointment with the result. Her spit revealed that she was more than 90% Indian. “Firmly and squarely from Connaught Place,” she said, half-laughing, nearly tipping into her drink. 


There are others who have more practically-stated reasons to do 23and me: with “DNA Family” and “DNA Relatives tools”, people can reconnect with their long-lost cousins, or their biological parents. Investigating disease propensity is another big one: “I just wanted to know the likelihood of me getting a couple of illnesses that run in my family,” Rai* a Calcutta-based graphic designer told me. “Unfortunately, I didn’t really get all the information I was looking for… the test seems to be best for Jewish people trying to locate Jewish diseases,” she wrote.


However, despite the odd unsatisfied case, millions are ready to “Order, Spit, and Discover” with 23andMe. But, big questions nag at me when I read the numbers: why do people desire this information now? What is so compelling about these gene ‘kits’? What are the implications of discovering a “new-found cultural identity,” as 23andMe puts it? 


One possibility is that millennials need to feel exotic: whether it’s the dragonfruit in their acai bowl that makes them feel so, or the 0.00001% innuit in their blood. In perhaps the same way we gleefully consume the backstories of popular and famous characters (Black Widow, Orange Is The New Black, the list is long and continues to grow), we seem to seek a wowing satisfaction in uncovering scientific “facts” about our existence. It’s not just important that we find out what percent European/Iberian/Greek we are, but that it be an interesting, different genetic makeup to what we expect. It is as though we are hoping for something to click, to be handed a missing piece of a puzzle that makes us exclaim, “Oh! That’s why.” As though being 2% Iberian would justify why we had that particular experience, traveling through Europe last summer, or why we crave -- like drug user crave -- insane amounts of spice.


As we uncover the linkages between us today and our great great great great great great grandparents, we’re desperate for these connections to be interesting. ‘Welcome to You’ the 23andme tagline goes, selling the idea that you are not a set of things you like and feel, but a bunch of DNA, that is hopefully - exotic. While these tests may have brought some people relief or delight, I find this to be an exercise in narcissism, sold for the catchy, all-familiar catchy rate of $99.


This piece was written by Ava Haider, in collaboration with Our Editors. 

Ava studies literature and politics at Ashoka University.