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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 08 June 2019
NEWS 4 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 8 JUNE 2019 THEODORA MAIOS Growing up, Kirsta Bowman, a 28-year-old music teacher from New Orleans, Louisiana who was adopted at birth and was raised in upstate New York, never expected that her biological father was of Greek descent. "I remember being bullied at school for my curly hair and tanned skin but little did I know that my biological father was in fact Greek," says Kirsta who after recently losing both her biological mother and her adopted mother, decided to go on a quest to find her father. After undertaking a series of DNA testing, Kirsta came face-to-face with an unforeseen discovery. "I found out that I am 50 per cent Greek, and I suspect that my Greek father is likely to have been a sailor who travelled the world and then either settled in Australia or re- Kirsta Bowman is on a quest to find her biological father. PHOTO: SUPPLIED turned to Greece. The results also showed that I have further connections with people from the area of Messinia in the Peloponnese," says Kirsta who was born on 4 December, 1990 and resides permanently in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Kirsta's biological mother, Reba McBryde worked at cafés and Greek bars on Dectaur Street in New Orleans, a popular street in the French Quarter. She spoke fluent Greek and was heavily involved with the Greek community that was in the district. Sailors from Greece used to visit the area and spend time at the bars in the late '80s. The young woman believes that it is highly probable that her biological father was one of those Greek sailors, who met and became romantically involved with her mother before continuing on his onward journey to Australia or Greece. Interestingly, according to Kirsta, all her paternal DNA matches are nowhere near the vicinity of New Orleans, where she was conceived. The closest genetic connection to her paternal side are second DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM A woman’s quest to find her Greek father in Australia Kirsta’s mother Reba, back in the US, where she met Kirsta’s father. and third cousins who live in Australia. "The only information I have are some common surnames, the closest connection being the name Apostolopoulos and Giannopoulos followed by Bisbikis, Politis, Stokas and Petro- DNA testing and our identity CAITLING CURTIS Have you ever wondered who you are or where you come from? I think it's a fundamental human desire to want to know this. One way we're seeing this curiosity play out is in the rise of the at-home DNA ancestry business. You've probably seen the ads for tests like 23andme and Ancestry DNA: you spit in a tube, and then receive a report breaking you down into neat little slices in a pie chart telling you that you're, say, 30 per cent German and 70 per cent English. As a population geneticist, I find this fascinating. But how does our collective interest in ancestry testing interact with our ideas and conversations about race? RECENT, DARK PAST I think we humans have always been interested in our ancestry, but it hasn't always been a healthy interest – sometimes it's been much darker and more sinister. And we don't even have to look too far into the past to see that. The eugenics movement was part science and part social engineering, and based on the idea that certain things – such as being poor, lazy, "feeble-minded" or criminal – were actually traits that were inherited in families. These traits were often linked to certain ancestries or racial groups using biased methodology. Eugenics was the idea that humanity could engineer a better future for itself by identifying and regulat- ing these groups using science and technology. In the United States in the early 20th century, eugenics became a recognised academic discipline at many prestigious universities – even Harvard. By 1928, almost 400 colleges and universities in America were teaching it. In 1910 the Eugenics Record Office was set up to collect ancestry data, literally door to door. It then used this data to support racist agendas and influence things like the 1924 Immigration Act to curb immigration of southeastern Europeans, and ban most Asians and Arabs altogether. The events of that time are still relevant new. More than seven decades have passed and we're seeing the rise of farright groups and ideologies. We're seeing a mainstreaming of ideas about race that we rejected not long ago. We're once again seeing the science of genetics being misappropriated to support racist agendas. DNA DOES NOT DEFINE CULTURE It's not just popular culture: DNA ancestry has also entered political culture. The right-wing Australian nationalist One Nation recently called for DNA ancestry tests of the DNA companies themselves influence our thinking about ancestry? One company said the twins were 27-29 per cent Italian, but another said they were 19-20 per cent Greek. Although we may think of eugenics as something linked with Nazi Germany in World War II, Hitler based some of his early ideas about eugenics on these academic programs in the US. There was a fear of "pollution" of the purebred genetic lineage, and that the "inferior" races would contaminate the "superior" race. Many Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg trials claimed there wasn't much difference between the Nazi eugenics program and the ones in the US. as a requirement to prove Aboriginal identity to access "benefits". I don't want to give this dangerous idea any more oxygen, and as a geneticist I can tell you it won't work. Cultural identity is much more than simply what is in our DNA. Aboriginal communities are the ones who determine who is and who is not Indigenous. I think this episode highlights a worrying trend for genetic tests to be seen as the ultimate decider of race and identity in public debates. So how does the marketing These ancestry companies use the language of science in their marketing, and present their results as being highly scientific – which people interpret as meaning accurate and factual. The process of estimating ancestry from DNA is scientific, but people may not realise it can also be a bit of a blurry process, and actually more of an estimate. When you look at your slice in the pie chart and it says 16 per cent German, it is not a fact that you are 16 per cent German. It's an estimate, or an educated guess, of your ancestry based on statistical inference. I think representation of our ancestries in pie charts is not helping our conversations. TWINS GOT DIFFERENT RESULTS Recently, two identical twins put five DNA ancestry companies to the test, and this provides a really interesting look at how this process works. The raw data for each twin was more than 99 per cent identical, which shows that the way the companies produce the raw data is indeed quite accurate. The shocking thing was that the companies provided each twin with noticeably different ancestry estimates. From one company, the first twin got 25 per cent Eastern European, and the second got 28 per cent. Just to be clear, this shouldn't happen with identical twins because they have the same DNA. Even more surprising, one company said the twins were 27-29 per cent Italian, but another said they were 19-20 per cent Greek. A lot of this difference would be based on the size of the databases that the companies use as references and who is in the databases, and – very importantly – who has been left out of the databases. These factors would be different between the different companies, and change through time. So the results you get now could be different to the results you might get in, say, six months when the databases are updated. Estimating our ancestry is hard, and the main reason it is hard is because our ancestry is much more mixed up than some people might have thought. It's not really so clearcut as a pie chart might suggest. The statistics are blurry because our populations are blurry. The bigger picture that's emerging from DNA ancestry testing is that we've underestimated the extent of mixing between ancestral groups throughout human history. Caitlin Curtis is a research fel- low, Centre for Policy Futures (Genomics) at The University of Queensland. This article is an edited version of a story presented on ABC's Ockham's Razor and delivered at the World Science Festival, Brisbane in March 2019 and is re-edited from The Conversation. poulos. But I understand that my father, if alive, could be anywhere in the world," says Kirsta who has already managed to track down her maternal half sister and brother. "Meeting them was a lifechanging experience which has encouraged me to keep going until I find my father. I understand that he might not wish to have a relationship with me, but at the same time I have gone 28 years wondering: Who is he? Does he know I exist? What are his interests? Do we share the same love for Greek traditional music? Do I get my love of history and cooking from him? Do I have any other siblings? "These are questions that gnaw at me daily. As much as I may not like the answers to some of my questions, I feel it is within my right to have them answered. "Please help me find him," she pleads. DNA ancestry testing can change our ideas of who we are.
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