One day this spring, I sent a tube of my saliva to Utah.
I had spit into the plastic tube until it reached a wavy line, and then screwed on a cap that released a blue solution that stabilized the DNA inside my cells. I shook it up, so everything mixed. I sealed it in a pouch, stuck the pouch in a white box, and put the whole thing in a UPS envelope that had the words “Extremely Urgent” on it. And off it went to Provo, Utah.
I was getting my DNA tested, and was eager to learn what AncestryDNA said my ethnicity was.
But I was curious about why I had been so eager to do it. I didn’t have any great mysteries to solve about my ethnicity. I wasn’t adopted, although my maternal grandfather was. Put simply: I basically knew who I was ethnically. And yet still I felt eager to get tested, to turn the DNA from my cells’ nuclei into information. But why?
A million and a half tested
Anna Swayne, a spokesperson for AncestryDNA, told me that 1.5 million people have had their DNA tested through them.
“It’s incredible,” she said. “If you would have asked me this last year, I would have told you 800,000. So we’ve almost doubled in one year.”
I asked Swayne what was behind the drive that people felt to get their DNA tested. Her answer: curiosity.
“They want to know a little bit more about themselves, and who came before them. Where they came from,” she said. “And now that science and technology has advanced so far, it’s becomes very easy.”
She also said it’s about connection: to a region in the world, or to a culture.
What Swayne said felt right, but for me, I felt like my curiousity was somehow slightly different.
The cauldron of the self
So I called Alondra Nelson, author of the book “The Social Life of DNA.” I wanted her to help me figure out my own drive to get tested. If I didn’t feel any huge family mystery, then why did I want to do it?
“I think that the desire to use genetic ancestry testing has really changed over the sort of 12-15 year duration of the industry,” she said. The first people were generally older folks who already had a genealogy interest and might have had questions about their family roots, she said.
Fast-forward to today, and DNA testing through the likes of direct-to-consumer services like AncestryDNA or 23andMe is now part of the “quantified self movement,” Nelson said. In other words, for many people now— including me— it’s less about genealogy, and more about data and “self-surveillance,” she said.
“We now are in a society in which we care about our Fitbits, and we care about our iWatches, and our health data going to our various kinds wearable computers,” she said.
That’s where Nelson hit the nail on the head for me. I hadn’t really been interested in trying to reconnect with a distant cousin, or going on a roots trip, but I do like my Apple Watch. For me, it was about gathering data, just like counting steps.
“People are just curious about themselves in a quantified-self sense,” she added. That could incorporate a traditional interest in genealogy and family mysteries, but is also “about the more general interest that human beings have in themselves.”
In other words, as Nelson put it, the “genealogy obsessives,” have been joined by the “data obsessives,” with the latter being “interested in collecting data about their daily life.” Counting calories, learning about your DNA— it all feeds into what Nelson called the “larger cauldron of what the self is today.”
As for me, my cauldron turns out to be 44 percent “Europe West,” 43 percent “European Jewish,” and 8 percent Irish, according to my AncestryDNA estimate.
I had expected those first two descriptors, but that Irish part, actually, was a little bit of surprise. I took a screenshot of my ethnicity estimate, and it’s now part of my photo library, stored in iCloud, of course.
Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger