Scientific Sankofa And The Complexities Of Genetic Ancestry : Short Wave Short Wave reporter Emily Kwong speaks with Janina Jeff, the host and executive producer of In Those Genes, a "science and culture podcast that uses genetics to decode the lost histories of African descendants." They discuss what a person's genetic ancestry test does and does not reveal, and the complicated intersection of genetics, history and race.

Scientific Sankofa And The Complexities Of Genetic Ancestry

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MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE...


SOFIA: ...From NPR.


Hey, everybody. Emily Kwong here. And as you might've guessed, being a reporter and a podcast co-host, I spend many hours marinating in the medium and listening to other podcasts. And one I recently started to listen to and love is "In Those Genes."


JANINA JEFF: Welcome to the family, everybody. You're listening to "In Those Genes," a science and culture podcast that uses genetics to decode the lost histories of African descendants.

KWONG: The host and executive producer is population geneticist Janina Jeff. Janina's podcast is in so many ways an extension of her career in genetics and an interrogation of science. She's a researcher at Illumina, a biotech company, and is super interested in the influence of genetics on human health.


JEFF: So really, it is my love for genetics, Black people and the arts that has inspired me to make this show, but also because tons of people use science to perpetuate a bunch of bull**** about Black folks.

KWONG: And it's for these reasons that from the start, Janina decided to root this podcast in something she calls scientific Sankofa, which she learned from her grandfather through his trips to Ghana.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So, you know, Sankofa.

JEFF: There's a Ghanaian proverb called Sankofa. In English, it means it's never too late to go back and fetch what has been lost or forgotten. The proverb has been an important cultural element to Pan-Africans, a reminder to us all to connect to our original roots. I see genetics as a scientific Sankofa in a way. Here, we are using our DNA to go back and fetch our lost identities.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) And I say I just want to be away (ph).

KWONG: So listening to this, it kind of blew my mind. I was like, that is absolutely brilliant as a way of seeing science. And I'm wondering how rooting the show in Sankofa changed your relationship to science itself.

JEFF: So for me, before developing the show, Sankofa was the basis of my genetic lineage and testing. And everything I knew about my ancestors I was taught through that Sankofa principle. And as I matured and matriculated as a geneticist, I realized, you know, we're not using that word in science, right? We don't use the word Sankofa or scientific Sankofa as a means of explaining what something is. But imagine you hear that clip, and you hear the culture. You hear the relevancy of making a listener feel connected, feel like this experience is individual and personal and, at the same time, valuable and connected to community. And so this is a prime example of how we can use the beauty of what makes us different and celebrate it and integrate it into technology and science in a powerful way that people can connect with. And if you can connect with something, you're automatically more interested in learning it.


KWONG: Today on the show, Janina breaks down all those little bits of DNA that make up our massive human genome and talks through the ancestry tests that claim to know our lost history based on those genes. I'm Emily Kwong, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


KWONG: I'm back with Dr. Janina Jeff, population geneticist and host and executive producer of the podcast "In Those Genes." Janina, let's begin this conversation about genetic ancestry by talking about genes themselves.

JEFF: So you can think about a gene like a word in a book. When you read that word, it tells you what something means. If you read the word African, it has a meaning behind it. Well, genes are like words and really are the foundation of what our body needs in order to survive. It gives the instructions to our body to do things that carry out biological functions needed for our survival. And so if we think about genes as being words in a book, then we can think about the entire book as being a genome. And in humans, we have about 25,000 genes, so that would be like 25,000 words in this book. With every gene, so every word in our individual books, we have different spellings...


JEFF: ...Because we are reading a language that only has four letters.

KWONG: Those four letters - A, T, C and G - are found in our DNA. See, in this book metaphor, DNA is responsible for all the letters that make up those words, aka genes. And so just like, say, the four letters L, A, M, P can be combined multiple ways, like spelling both lamp and palm, DNA can be used to create many different genes.

JEFF: And so the reason why that's important - a lot of people talk about genetics, and one of my genetic pet peeves is when people say, I don't have the gene for that; you have the gene for this. And it's not exactly how it works, right? For the most part, we have all the same 25,000 genes. But what's different are the orders of the letters in that word, right? And so if you and I had a gene, and let's say the word was stallion - I'm just thinking about Meg Thee Stallion this morning.

KWONG: Let's do it.

JEFF: And so if we had a gene and the word was stallion and you spelled it...

KWONG: Yes, we both have the stallion gene.

JEFF: We both have the stallion gene.

KWONG: I would love to have the stallion gene.

JEFF: And you spell yours one way, and I spell mine one way.


JEFF: You know, maybe you throw a Y where the I is - you know, funk it up a little bit.

KWONG: Right.

JEFF: I mean, how many different versions of the word yes - yeah, yah, yas. Like, they all mean the same thing - right? - but they're different spellings of it. And so that's really how we can think about our individuality, is that we have the same genes, but, you know, maybe there's one letter difference. And that one letter difference is something that we can use to help describe our individuality, to help describe who our ancestors were.

KWONG: Yeah. I learned from you and from listening to "In Those Genes" how similar we humans are genetically. You say we're at least 99.5% the same genetically, and yet our species continues to see ourselves as different because of the social construct of race. And I'm wondering how you see that tension as a geneticist and a science communicator.

JEFF: Yeah. So, you know, it's an unfortunate thing that I would say I even more recently really came into consciousness about, which is this idea that biology was misused to institute a form of human hierarchy that fueled capitalism. But it came at a time where it was a nice fit during - this is an enlightenment period where scientists were making sense of things - right? - actually, you know, writing out processes and describing what things are different, types of animals. And it also came coincidentally at a time where, you know, slave owners needed to justify how and why they should continue slavery. And so what better way to do that than to manipulate genetics and to talk about genetics in a way that really gave a biological basis for this idea of race.

Now, the reason why it's constantly confused with genetic ancestry - because physically, we do look different. These physical features, which honestly, from a biological standpoint, they only explain one thing, which is the environment in which our ancestors lived in. In fact, that really is the difference. That explains skin color. That explains different hair textures. That explains different facial features. It's all about the environment that our ancestors lived in. The world is a big place, and we have a lot of different climates and environments. And so this idea that these differences, you know, explain things like intellect, explain things like capabilities of doing certain things is just completely false. And it has evolved into a pseudoscience.

KWONG: Nevertheless, direct-to-consumer genetic companies like AncestryDNA, 23andMe and African Ancestry sell kits purporting to tell you, based on your DNA, what similarity you share with a group of people down to the percentage point. Basically, they crack open your genome, your individual book in that metaphor, and compare it to the books of some other people whose ancestors are known to be from a certain area - which is why I asked Janina, what are some of the things that people should be thinking about as they're trying to figure out whether to take one of these tests, which test, and particularly if they're of African ancestry? What are some of the things to consider?

JEFF: I think the first thing to consider is to understand what the tests can and can't do, right?

KWONG: Yeah.

JEFF: Genetic ancestry is never going to be 100% accurate. In order for it to be 100% accurate, we literally would have to take your DNA and compare it with every single person that is living today and have a database of everyone.

KWONG: Yes. All, like, 8 billion of us would have to do it.

JEFF: All - yes, exactly. But let's say there are some words in your book that are not in the library. Well, what happens is, OK, we can't find an exact match, or maybe not even close but good enough. And so for genetic ancestry tests, if you are a person of African descent, and let's say you have some genetic ancestry in a place in Africa that is not represented in this database or library, then what you get is the next best match. And so I always tell people, for that purpose, try to remember that the test is not 100% accurate. But also remember it's a beautiful thing to celebrate all of Africa and all of the many places that your descendants come from.

Another thing I tell is that remember that your DNA might tell you some history that could be painful. One of the reasons why I haven't done a genetic ancestry test is because I don't necessarily find it to be a positive experience of learning how much European ancestry I have given the history of sexual violence to some of my ancestors. That European ancestry, a lot of times, is explaining that. And so those are some of the, I would say, emotional things to consider and also things to put into perspective.

Another big thing is data privacy, to make sure there's a clear understanding of how the data could be used, what my rights are, who owns the data, what is it telling me, what is it not telling me, and how can I use it for my benefit. I think these are all questions. And most importantly, I tell people in the show, read the terms and conditions.


JEFF: But there's a lot of positive, and I would say the positive that I love the most about the genome is that it really can impact our futures. And so I think that's a very powerful part of genetic testing in general.

KWONG: Yeah. I want to ask you about that as we close out. I really appreciate how you're pushing people to engage with the science of how these tests exist, the history of how they came to exist. And given that they're kind of fraught but also provide meaningful answers, how do you want people engaging with genetics in the future?

JEFF: This is a tough, emotional question because...

KWONG: Yeah.

JEFF: I know - I fear that genetics could also be used to keep racism and inequalities alive. And I'm really, really hoping that that doesn't happen. I think us straying away from using race in genetic studies is a start. But I really want people to understand the power that genetics holds for the future of humanity. As we are constantly evolving and learning, using technology like gene editing, we can eradicate disease and some of the consequences of natural selection and human evolution, like sickle cell, to really have people here longer. And I'm hopeful because the young geneticists and the people who are leading our field today have been very bold about owning up to our painful past as geneticists that was founded in eugenics, and also thinking forward of how we can make access to this technology, to this knowledge for everyone.


JEFF: And I hope that we all take what we learn and use it in very powerful ways to continue on and promote humanity, just like our ancestors would've wanted us to do.


KWONG: Janina, it's been unbelievable talking to you. We hope to have you back and are really excited about Season 2 of "In Those Genes," which will be out soon.

JEFF: Yes. So excited to be here and can't wait to talk again. Thank you for having me.


KWONG: This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Gisele Grayson and fact-checked by Rasha Aridi. I'm Emily Kwong. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


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