To better understand this blog, you should first familiarize yourself with the Primeval DNA Test whose launched was announced here.
As someone who pioneered multiple research projects, I am used to doing things that no one did before, this is science. Of course, hearing how wrong I am from people with absolutely no clue about this topic or fake scientists are also parts of science.
On April 9th 2019, Dr. Jennifer Raff of the University of Kansas criticized our Primeval DNA Test in a Forbes article. Reff did write a handful of papers in her career, not one in population genetics. Now she mainly writes “opinion” “news and views” papers. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, there are some remarkable people who specialize in explaining science and not necessarily doing it, but it only works when one knows exactly what they are talking about. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Raff.
Raff evaluated the Primeval DNA Test from its description and without actually trying it or read the academic papers associated with it. This was quite a surprise. Scientists, usually TEST something before they EVALUATE it. In the following, I wish to address Raff’s claims. Let’s start with the title: “Genetic Astrology: When Ancient DNA Meets Ancestry Testing” yeah, yeah, we have heard that stuff before (here is a 2013 post and it’s always around the time when someone launches a new test.
Geneticists Martin Richards and Vincent Macaulay already address similar claims back in 2013, but if Raff wants to recycle this discussion, may I ask one simple question – where is your evidence? Real scientists first test things before they reach conclusions. Raff starts by introducing the test:
The company DNA Consultants has recently launched the “Primeval DNA Test”, which claims to be “The world’s first available ancient DNA test series.” Supposedly it allows customers to “experience all of history, from the mammoth-hunting Stone Age nomads to the founders of Judaism and onward through the centuries using cutting-edge technologies that open exciting vistas of the future.”
This test is an attempt to address what is one of the biggest limitations in the claims of most ancestry tests currently on the market. Most companies compare your genome to those of living people from other populations across the world and then give you an estimate of which groups you are most similar to, giving rise to the common misconception that this is where your ancestors came from. But people living in a region today may not be genetically similar to those who lived there in the past. Ancient DNA analyses are the only way we can understand the genetic variation in a region at any given point in time.
This is the principle upon which the “Primeval DNA Test” is marketed, and in theory, it might sound reasonable. DNA Consultants claim that they are able to “compare you to actual people who lived hundreds and even thousands of years ago around the world,” such as “Vikings in Medieval Iceland” or “Stone Age Europeans,” using their database of ancient genomes. As they say on their site: “Find out if you have true Israelite, Viking, Chumash Indian, British Roman or Ancient Egyptian ancestry—and more.”
This is all fine, Raff demonstrates her copying-pasting abilities, which is the most impressive part in her story. But here comes the catch.
But this, too, is a form of genetic astrology.
Why is it genetic astrology? Population geneticists have been calculating genetic distances between individuals before Raff was born. We can calculate genetic distances between human and chimpanzee, human and zebrafish, two zebrafishes, 2 proteins, 2 genes, 2 transcripts, and yes, even 2 humans, it’s pretty much what scientists have been doing since the discovery of DNA (e.g., a paper by Mark Thomas that uses a genetic distance to measure genetic similarity between people).
Measuring genetic distances in genetics. Let us think of a toy example. Imagine we have 2 DNA sequences:
Viking) AAAAA; You) AAATT
we can calculate the genetic similarity by counting the number of similar nucleotides, in this case, the 3 A’s. Can we say now that this person is 3/5=60% similar to the Viking? We can, but it will not be accurate. It turns out that the first A exists in all humans and ape. So it is not a biomarker for being a Viking. Let’s discount that A. Can we say that this person is 2/5=40% Viking? Again, we can, but it turned out that the second A also exists in ancient Africans, who cannot be expected to have Viking ancestry. Let’s discount this one too. Now our similarity to the Viking is 1/5=20%. This was a very simple toy example with a very basic set of assumptions that we can all agree to. We can make this a lot more complicated by asking about data quality, amount of DNA shared by all Vikings etc. Other people may disagree with these assumptions, offer different ones or giving different weights to different assumptions, which is why there are endless measures of genetic distances and they all give different results, but no method should tell you that you are 60% Viking. This is not Astrology, this is how we do genetics and how science is done.
Who wants to be a Viking?
We are not the first ones asking these questions, of course. Dr.
Raff also assumes that everyone is ignorant about these very basic calculations “Unfortunately, the popularity of ancestry testing has gone far beyond most people’s understanding of genetics and evolutionary biology,” but makes no attempt to understand nor explain how any of this works. How could she? She is not a geneticist. She doesn’t get any of it. That’s like me explaining how to build a motor engine. You can see that Raff has no clue what she is talking about because no geneticist would ever write anything like this:
Over generations, the cumulative effect of passing on only half of a genome from parent to child is that our DNA only represents a small, and rapidly diminishing (as we look further back in the past) fraction of our true ancestry. Most of your genealogical ancestors after about 9 generations didn’t actually contribute much (if anything) of your genome. As you go back in time, you inherit less and less DNA from your ancestors and share more and more genetic ancestors with other people.
That flies in the face of over 50 years of population genetic theory. Unless people continuously mate with each other at random, the genetic differences between would GROW due to genetic drift. The longer they mate with each other, the longer the preserve the ancestral signatures of their forefathers. “Most of your genealogical ancestors” What genealogy has to do with that? Yes, we don’t carry much of the original great-great-great-great-grandparents, however, it doesn’t mean that their genetic material is completely gone because it could have been preserved in the general population, so it doesn’t matter how much time passed – everyone is passing the same things to each other. This is why all Europeans have 1-4% Neanderthal DNA (according to David Reich). How else could it have been preserved all this time had it not been in the original European population?
Now Raff turns to Dr. Deborah Bolnick, supposedly an expert on genetics. Bolnick is a former student of Mark Thomas who was involved with some of the greatest falsifications in the genetic literature, including the “Jewish Lemba,” where Thomas and colleagues informed an African tribe that they are genetically Jewish (as of today, there is no genetic Jewishness test), and reporting the existence of a “Cohen gene.” The Cohen gene is a false claim promoted by Thomas and colleagues that Jews with the surname Cohen share common markers that go all the way back exactly to the Temple days and are all descended from the same clan of priests… a fanatic idea (see here) that has not only been disproved by several groups (here and here) but Thomas has also been accused in data manipulation.
Here is what Bolnick has to say and my response.
- This test compares the test-taker’s DNA with a very limited sample of people from the past. Answer: The test compares the user with all the ancient people of a certain culture whose DNA has been sequenced, this number grows every year. You co-authored a study on a single skeleton and told us that it is related to modern-day Native Americans. Most of our tests have >10 individuals.
- We don’t know if shared genetic markers are derived from that person – or even their community or broader cultural group. Answer. This is the case with all ancient DNA tests. You made similar claims in your study
- Other communities likely shared the same genetic markers, and a test-taker might have even greater genetic similarity with an ancient community not included in the comparison. Answer. Every test compares the person to one group. Of course, there are many groups of ancient people, there are also many tests.
- Furthermore, the degree of genetic similarity can tell you if someone was a close or more distant genetic relative, but not whether they were a direct ancestor.” Answer. That’s a stupid claim that no one has ever made, except you in the Cohen paper.
As expected Bolnick had nothing interesting to say. Let’s move to the next witness, Dr. Graham Coop, who is supposed to be a more serious scientist. Coop wrote:
This is a daft idea. Many of these ancient people the company uses are so far back in time that, if they left any living descendants today, we’re all their descendants.
Let us assume that what Dr. Coop actually meant to say was that we would all share the same exact similarity to each of the ancient people. That information is actually provided with the test, you can compare your result with those of over a hundred modern-day populations. Had Dr. Coop taken the test before he made his comment? Of course not. Did he read our paper? Probably not.
Had Dr. Raff taken the test she is so bullishly criticizing she would have known that as well. The story continues with Dr. Raff’s greatest conclusion that “This point that Dr. Coop raised (and has blogged about) is one of the most important and counterintuitive facts about ancestry.” Really? So, let’s go back to Raff’s editorial paper about the Anzick-1 discovery (not her discovery, she just talk about it): “These genetic affinities between Anzick-1 and other Native Americans are not a surprise, because there is ample evidence that contemporary Native Americans are descended from the ancient inhabitants of the Americas.” There, Raff reports with excitement that Native Americans are the closest to an ancient skeleton called Anzick-1 a similarity that the rest of us don’t share and that it’s not surprising. Raff doesn’t realize that this is exactly how the Primeval DNA Test works.
Raff then continues to explain basic genetics, writing among else that “no population has ever stayed isolated for very long” – maybe she should tell it to Bolnick and colleagues who decided that Cohens share a common ancestry that goes back exactly to the Temple days. She then ends with a quote from Mark Thomas, who was already mentioned above and whose attempts to forge evidence were reported by myself and colleagues in 2014 (I wrote about it here and here). Thomas, now decided that we are all identical:
Because of our fondness for moving and mating – in the past and today – we all belong to a remarkably tightly spun web of relatedness, and we all share common ancestors surprisingly recently.
This was not the conclusion of his recent study:
The present-day population whose genomes most closely resemble those of the western farmers is found not in the Middle East, but on the Italian island of Sardinia.
Thomas is Bullshitting and for a good reason. Not only Thomas is one of the founding fathers of genetic astrology, repeatedly publishing papers that are not supported by the evidence (Jewish Lamba, Cohen Gene, Adam Y chromosome) as shown before, he is also linked to a competing UK company called Living DNA. There he is in a promotional video produced by Living DNA.
He never reported these relationships, as is required by scientific journals. Read this post to understand how Mark Thomas, Debbie Kennett, and Adam Rutherford are potentially working together to supporting poor Living DNA that right now needs all the help they can get. Why? Because after the introduction of the Primeval DNA Test, Living DNA looks like a dinosaur, and not even a scary one, one of the chicken-like little ones. Why? because again, who cares that they look the same as modern-day George and Mary? They do not represent the far past. This is probably why Raff was asked to do this hit job.
Here is what a brilliant scientist who did take the test had to say about it:
Since Raff published her story, entries to this blog went up 4000% and the interest in the Primeval DNA Test went up even more (Raff Effect).
The same thing happened when Dennie Kennett (an unemployed blogger) criticised GPS Origins, not because it is inaccurate but because it didn’t tell her what she wanted to hear that she is pure English (my response here). Instead, GPS Origins reported her secret Italian ancestry, which was enough for her to go nuts and blog about it. Her friends re-blogged it and within one year HomeDNA, an otherwise anonymous company, became one of the largest providers of DNA testing (Kennett Effect). Mayo Clinic, the best healthcare provider in the world, is using GPS Origins in their studies. Academics are using it too. GPS Origins can now be purchased in every drug store in America and it is sold on their online websites (CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Walmart).
I just got one of those boxes and put it on the shelf alongside the Geno2.0, which I developed for National Geographic. At the end of the day, it’s all good.