Why Are We So Obsessed With Our Ancestry?
The popularity of ancestry websites and DNA testing is exploding, now the second-most visited group of sites behind only pornography. What's driving our obsession?
Interest in ancestry is booming, with more than 12 million people submitting their DNA for analysis last year. This was eight million more than in 2016, which was itself a bumper year for DNA testing.
Even before last year’s peak of interest (so far), a Time magazine journalist marvelled that ancestry websites were second in popularity only to porn, while the alleged Golden State Serial Killer was recently captured in California after a relative had sent DNA to an ancestry service.
We are clearly a generation that is fascinated by where we came from.
The appeal of stories
Why are we so fascinated by our ancestry? Our interest lies, at least in part, in our natural attraction to storytelling, and the novelty of placing ourselves within the narrative.
In Psychology Today, author Arthur Dobrin explains that stories “root us in an on-going stream of history and thereby provide us with a sense of belonging and helping establish our identities.
“Traditional narratives were firmly established – you took your identity from your locale, your clan, and your religion. You fit in with your family and your country. These were master narratives that contained within them other, subsidiary stories that centered on more transient matters.”
As Dobrin suggests, in the past, our families were the keepers of our stories. However, in an era when we many of us are geographically (and sometimes, emotionally), disconnected from older generations of our families, our communities and even our countries, we are increasingly turning to science for the story of who we are and where we came from.
At the same time, that other traditional source of storytelling – religion – has had a diminishing role in our lives. Between 1961 and 2011, an Australian Bureau of Statistics census revealed a steep rise in the percentage of people who claimed to support ‘no religion’.
As a result, we have lost the influence of storytelling that texts such as the Bible, the Koran or other cultural or religious forms of storytelling provided. These stories offered communities a sense of their own past, and of belonging to a larger, wider history.
While many Australians might have lost faith in the beginnings written in scripture, they are finding their stories within their own DNA – finding the story of their origins in what might seem to be a more modern, personal and relevant way.
Identity and belonging
It is no surprise that Australians are particularly fond of ancestry tests, given the multicultural nature of our population. While Australians who hail from far flung continents increasingly recognise the important role that ancestry and place play in the lives of Indigenous Australians, many lack any real sense of their own.
Ancestry tests offer stories in which any individual can find a sense of their own past – a story in which they find their true and authentic selves reflected, untainted by modern pressures and circumstances.
In a way, by exploring our ancestry, we are sewing together a patchwork (or a ‘mosaic’, as my friend suggested), in which we belong. All the better if that patchwork is made of unexpected pieces, bringing us closer to others of different nationalities by revealing shared origins, even if just in a tiny portion of our DNA.
The issues of belonging and identity, and their links to ancestry, are common themes in literature, including in two recent award-winning Australian books, Extinctions by Josephine Wilson and Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home. Both draw upon the inescapable bonds of ancestry, and the danger of ignoring them.
Why does it matter?
At a time when we obsess over wellbeing, mindfulness, clean eating and fitspo, is the popularity of ancestry just another indicator that we really are all part of the ‘me’ generation? Are we only interested in stories in which we (or at least our ancestors) play a starring role? It is difficult not to detect a hint of narcissism in our desire to find out more about our our stories through our DNA.
But I think there’s far more to it, and it is only reasonable that, now that we have the technology to explore them more deeply, our own origins fascinate us. Our interest in ancestry is a way of recognising that it really is extraordinary that we found ourselves in this place at this time, given the many reasons this might not be the case.
In a podcast for The Guardian Books, Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard spoke about the bloodiness of past civilisations, and while listening, it struck me that it is quite a triumph (although not an individual one – no ‘ancestry goal’ to aspire to) that any particular line of ancestry has survived through history’s many battles, diseases, famines and floods; that the lives of our particular ancestors led us to be here, living in this time and place.
To learn the stories of the past our ancestors survived, in the particular continent or era in which they lived, is inspiring in a way that surpasses tallying steps on the fitbit or chanting feel-good mantras in a yoga class. Perhaps, for individuals, the story of ancestry is the greatest story of all, so is there any wonder it has been embraced by a generation which has the ability to cast a scientific eye over their past?