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The Facts About Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test

With Warren dropping out of the race for the Democratic nomination a lot of people on podcasts I listen to are making fun of her DNA test. Unfortunately, there are some falsehoods being promoted. It’s kind of scary for me because this is a field I know well, and it’s disturbing to watch falsehoods becoming accepted truths because people repeat them over and over again.

– First, the DNA test was not done through 23andMe, etc., or any standard commercial service. Rather, it was done by the Bustamante group at Stanford. This group has a lot of experience with the genetics of indigenous peoples of the Americas, so that is presumably why they were approached.

– Second, Warren surely has more than the expected amount of ancestry (for a white American) derived from people who were resident in the New World prior to 1492. The Bustamante group used relatively stringent criteria that are not comparable in an apples-to-apples manner with the inferences of 23andMe.

I am not here addressing the issue of whether she is or isn’t a Cherokee, or descended from Cherokees. The tests can’t answer those questions for both scientific and socio-political reasons. I’m also not addressing whether she used her identification with that tribe in furthering her career.

My only point in putting this post up is that it gets really disturbing to see “pundits” repeating “facts” you know are totally wrong without any malice because the information ecosystem is such that false facts rapidly transmute into conventional wisdom. Basically, when you see this happening you start to disbelieve everything…

Here is an old post, Elizabeth Warren Carries Native American DNA – She’s Running!.

Note: I have a piece about personal genomics that should be in the print edition of National Review in early April. Update, it’s up.

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11 thoughts on “The Facts About Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test

  1. Thanks for the post.

    Love her or hate her, one shouldn’t scorn people for lying about something that, in so far as it has a factual component, is true. Politicians tell plenty of lies about things that aren’t factually true, so there is no need to resort to trying to twist true statements into false ones.

    I think a lot of the scorn is driven by the power of phenotype to prevail over genotype in how people want to understand ancestry whether it is true or not. As you’ve frequently noted, in many circumstances, genotype cannot be accurately determined from crude genotype ancestry percentages which can manifest in many different ways, even among siblings.

    Another observation. The lack of a U.S. reference sample is no accident. Native American tribes in the U.S. (as you know but your readers may not) have collectively resisted participation in genetic studies out of distrust for the educational, scientific and medical establishment, as well as the government, that doesn’t come from nowhere, even though it isn’t the choice I would have made in their shoes. I understand their choice and it isn’t irrational or unreasonable given their collective experience.

    Query if one could reconstruct most of a pure Southeastern U.S. Native American genotype (where data sources are poor) from African-American DNA that is frequently admixed with it, in a useful way.

  2. Tangentially related: in the highly unlikely event that Native Americans decided to sign up for genetic testing en masse, could a non-Native person like Warren figure out with reasonable accuracy where their Amerindian ancestry came from through plain old IBD matching? We commonly hear “it is impossible to tell what tribe your Indian ancestors came from” but is it in principle?

  3. Ohwilleke:
    Haha, it’s a lot more regarding her character and her actions than merely to disbelieve a DNA test

    Megalophias:
    There are few natives left, and it seems most came from a common source population and are relatively homogenous. The peopling of the Americas before European coloniation did involve several known groups, so for example we should be able to distinguish between Eskimo and Amerind or Na Dene vs other Amerind with good samples

    If we had really good sample data we could distinguish between developing distinctions such as who had started agriculture and who did not partake, which we can already do so for who lived at high altitude in the Americas and who likely did not.

    In principle if we had a wealth of fine grained information from genetics and archaeology then we could certainly reconstruct the likely historical life story of native ancestors. But this kind of data is not easy to come by even in the old world

  4. Ancestry successfully applies IBD to subgroups within founder populations, and reports on the progress in identification of diverse and differentially admixed minorities (such as various ethno-regional subgroups within the Sephardim). So my prediction would be that one can fairly reliably identify tribal affiliations of anyone’s recent Native American ancestors by IBD. Despite the fact that there are shared founder events between the tribes, and differential ancestries within them.

    As to identifying precise origins of the minor ancestral autosomal DNA components (as opposed to their “general origins”) … isn’t there a complete lack of statistical publications, coupled with the near-absence of appropriate historical reference DNAs? Razib wrote about Afrikaners recently, where the study was able to tell apart “Bantu-like” vs. “Khoe-San-like” strands of ancestry, but didn’t attempt to go more granular. A similar issue was with the paper about the minor ancestral streams in the Latin American genomes, which used IBD to show similarities with the contemporary North African populations, but it was also clear that these reference populations were far from a perfect proxy.

  5. IBD = “Identity by descent. … An IBS segment is identical by descent (IBD) in two or more individuals if they have inherited it from a common ancestor without recombination, that is, the segment has the same ancestral origin in these individuals.”

    wikipedia

  6. ‘My only point in putting this post up is that it gets really disturbing to see “pundits” repeating “facts” you know are totally wrong without any malice because the information ecosystem is such that false facts rapidly transmute into conventional wisdom.’

    Thanks for posting this Razib.

  7. I know very little about genetics and read your blog as an interested amateur. But in my field, environmental engineering, if I may be immodest, I am an expert. And yet when I read the NY Times, watch CNN, or listen to NPR it’s all wrong, wrong, wrong. It others words welcome to my world.

    Paraphrasing Mark Twain, the are lies, damn lies, statistics, and then there are the media.

  8. The main reason American Indians don’t want to test is that they know how mixed many of their communities are.
    The American attitude of making people “ethnic” because of the literal “one drop” is like a obsessive-compulsive-disorder.
    That’s like saying Tibetans actually ARE Denisovans because of their minor admixture and no sapiens any longer.

    That Warren “identified native”, in a honest and dishonest way, tells you a lot about how she looks at the USA and its European culture and fundaments. Neglect, like most Cultural Marxists.

    To come up with some ancestry beyond any reasonable genealogical and genetic treshold is just ridiculous. Its just a prove of a distorted mind.

    And if someone identifies ethnoracially with something below one quarter of his or her actual genetic ancestry more than with the three quarters of his main ancestry, thats a sign of delusion and the sad heritage of misguided racial concepts in the United States.

  9. Schwarz: I know very little about genetics and read your blog as an interested amateur. But in my field, environmental engineering, if I may be immodest, I am an expert. And yet when I read the NY Times, watch CNN, or listen to NPR it’s all wrong, wrong, wrong. It others words welcome to my world.

    There is a name for this phenomenon, Gell-Mann amnesia.

  10. If you watch Warren on the radio show, at one point she seems to admit that she doesn’t have Native American ancestry. (Link below)

    The Warren campaign wanted to go into the race strong, putting the controversy behind her and taking a swing at Trump with this study, but appeared completely unaware of the larger context that the tribes would be hostile to such means of identification and other minority groups would see this as an attempt by a white person to appropriate benefits intended for minorities. If this interview is any indication, seven months later she’s still struggling to put the issue behind her and is just apologizing for it all, so I’m not surprised with the many false impressions left.

    When did you find out that you weren’t Native American

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