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Does Your DNA Really Make You Who You Are?

Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test ignited a national conversation about what constitutes one’s identity, and highlighted our culture’s fixation with family history. Here’s what some of the country’s leading thinkers had to say.

Photo Credit: MR.Cole_Photographer/ Getty Images

President Donald Trump has repeatedly called Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” a racial epithet he hurls at her to challenge her claim of Native American ancestry. The Commander-in-Chief was so sure Warren was misrepresenting her heritage that he told a crowd at a rally in July: “I will give a million dollars to your favorite charity, paid for by Trump, if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian.” Warren, who says family lore links her to the Cherokees, a minority identity that some argue has greatly benefitted her academic and political career, decided to take him up on his offer.

On October 15, The Boston Globe released the results of an analysis spearheaded by Stanford University geneticist Carlos D. Bustamante, Ph.D., demonstrating that Warren has five genetic segments on her DNA indicating Native American lineage. The longest segment, on Chromosome 10, suggests her Native American ancestor is between six and ten generations away. That said, the test could not verify from which tribe she descends, and Cherokee Nation vehemently denies her tribal heritage. Ninety-five percent of her DNA, as her phenotype suggests, is of European ancestry.

The results, which were widely misinterpreted in newspapers across the country, roiled people on the right and the left and everyone in between.

Why? Why do questions of identity so often inflame our strongest emotions? And what constitutes one’s identity? Here, some of the country’s leading intellectuals tackle these complex questions.

Why We Want to Know from Whom We’ve Descended

Carl Zimmer, a science writer for the New York Times and author of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, who wrote two stories on the results of Warren’s DNA test for the newspaper, says the longing to know from whom we descend stems from a profound desire for familial continuity and a sense of self. “We want to know who our ancestors were because we think of them as family, and as a force that has shaped our own identities,” Zimmer says.

“People have an intrinsic need to know who they are and where they come from, and building a cohesive and rich narrative helps stabilize one’s identity,” Wendy Freund, L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist in New York City who specializes in issues related to adoptees who long to know their biological origins, adds.

But the Biologization of Identity Can Be Harmful and Hurtful

Certainly, questions of biology and identity may be uniquely complicated for adopted children, as Freund has seen in her practice, but ultimately they’re knotty for all of us. As someone who occupies two fragile and fraught identities — as a lesbian and as the non-gestational parent in a same-sex marriage — the cultural quest to biologize identity always puts me on high alert. As a gay person, I’m wary of researchers who aim to pinpoint how my fetal development or unique brain characteristics failed to heterosexualize me, and as the non-biological mother of my daughter Marty, I can’t help but feel diminished by the cultural insistence that who we really are somehow lives in our materiality.

Joan Nestle, a former professor at Queens College and noted activist, once told me that we should all be suspicious and cautious of the cultural tendency to classify people based on biology, noting the horrific ways its been used to dehumanize — and murder en masse — certain categories of people: “The use of biological ‘abnormalities’ was cited by the Nazis when they measured the nostril thickness of imprisoned Jews to prove they were an inferior race; and when colonizers measured the brains of Africans to make a case for their enslavement; and when doctors at the turn of the century used the argument that the lighter weight of women’s brains proved their inferiority to men.”

Ultimately, It’s Not Blood That Defines Us, It’s the Stories We Tell

Zimmer warns that it’s a mistake to think that our DNA results equal identity. “Our identity is about our lived experiences growing up and the experiences of the cultures in which we grew up. That matters a lot more than whether you have a very short segment of your DNA from another part of the world,” he says.

Noam Chomsky, Ph.D., the world-renowned linguist and professor at the University of Arizona, adds that he thinks Warren’s use of her DNA to stake a claim on Native American identity “makes no sense” because “genetically, each of us is a complex amalgam.” He also weighs what difference it would make if he discovered his ancestry traces back to the Caucasus: “Would that have any effect on my identity as a Jewish American? Or my identification with the networks of associations that are a large part of my life?” he asks incredulously.

Nathan H. Lents, Ph.D., a professor of biology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, who calls the whole genealogical enterprise everything short of “meaningless” in Psychology Today hits on a similar point: “The genealogical quest is really a desire to construct a narrative about culture and identity,” he says. “We’re storytellers, and it’s the stories, much more than the biology, that bind communities together — that bind families together even.”

Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ph.D., professor of philosophy at New York University and author of the newly published The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, says that categories of identity “are the result of social fads and are not fixed by genes. The genes give us an appearance that goes into a social process, where identities are assigned. But the main way in which the process works is social, not biological.”

As for Warren, the right way to establish your identity as a Cherokee is to use whatever rules, procedures and practices the Nation itself has created to determine your status, Appiah notes. But as The Hill reports, “Cherokee do not decide who is (or is not) one of them the basis of DNA; what matters are clan ancestry, tracing one’s genealogy to an ancestor on the ‘Dawes Rolls,’ or being adopted into a clan by a Clan Mother. Elizabeth Warren fails to meet any of these criteria.”

Identity is tricky terrain for most of us, but perhaps, we’d all be the wiser if we heeded Noam Chomsky’s words: “We shouldn’t over-generalize complex matters of human affairs, which have many aspects.” 

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