When DNA Tests Lead Us Astray

Here’s a story from the UK that once again demonstrates the power our belief in genetic linkages possesses today.  Keeley Hall and Elizabeth X (I’ve removed her last name here) are both donor- conceived.   In 2004 they each registered with UK Donor Link, a government funded agency intended to help donor conceived children locate genetic relatives. 

The two women were told they were half-sisters, that they had been conceived from the sperm of the same donor.   Hall travelled from Australia to meet Elizabeth.    The article recounts that on learning of their relationship the were “overjoyed.” 

“[T]hey told of the many resemblances between them – their similar eyes and hair, their shared love of languages – and how they already felt like sisters.”

Only after they had forged a substantial relationship did UK Donor Link tell them that in fact, they were not genetically related.   

It’s not hard to understand how much anguish this train of events might cause.   That reflects, I think, the extent to which DNA defines our social relationships.    In this case, the genetic link was never there.   But believing it was changed the way these two women thought of each other.  It allowed them to see similarities that might otherwise have seemed less remarkable.   And as they thought of themselves as sisters, it formed the basis on which they built their relationship. 

In the same way, when the belief in a genetic link was taken from them it changed their social relationship.   It’s not that they’ve reverted to being strangers.   But the assumption on which they constructed their relationship has been proved wrong.   And that does change things.

I wrote about a similar tale that was in the NY Times some months ago.  That story told of a woman who believed she had located the man who had helped conceive her–she had discovered the identity of her father.   There, too, in the end it turned out that the genetic link wasn’t there.  But before the absence of the link was discovered, a relationship premised on its existence had been forged. 

Though these stories may be rare and isolated, I think they offer us an opportunity to consider the role our belief in genetics (rather than genetics itself) plays in our human relationships.   This is not an area where one can propose scientific experiment, so you have to glean what you can from the occasional (and generally unfortunate) tales that arise by accident.  

Whether genetics really creates ties or not it is clear that many people believe that it does.   And that belief itself can affect reality, even when there turns out to be no genetic relationship.   I don’t know any way to determine how much of the evidence for the importance of genetic connections is a product of our belief it the importance of genetic connections and how much is “real.”  But stories like this one do make me wonder.


14 responses to “When DNA Tests Lead Us Astray

  1. I had the exact same reaction to this story. When told of the genetic link there was a perceived (and now we know, false) “sisterly” connection. Physical and social/psychological resemblances were found and noted. Etc etc. But it was all socially constructed. None of it was “real”. As you note, Julie, belief in the power of genetics was enough to create a false reality.

    Interestingly, few people comment about the lack of connection they feel with their known siblings. My sister and I have almost nothing in common and share few social values, despite being 100% related and having grown up in the same household. Why doesn’t anyone ever use such cases as evidence of the way in which shared biology can mean very little at all?

  2. With all due respect fjkelly you could only be 100% related to your sister if you are her identical twin, and if so you would have a lot in common. As fraternal sisters you would have on average around 50% of the same genes but you could also share very few genes. You also might have very little in common because unbeknownst to you, you might not be as closely related as you might think. You might not in fact share both parents.

    • re·lat·ed   /rɪˈleɪtɪd/ Show Spelled[ri-ley-tid] Show IPA
      1.associated; connected.
      2.allied by nature, origin, kinship, marriage, etc.

      Surely, I’m 100% “related”. Related isn’t genetics. But, given that you’re applying a different defintion, just so you know, we are indeed sisters and know we have the same parentage.

  3. It is in fact very possible that the two women are closely related for instance their genetic fathers could be brothers or father and son. In fact the chances are that they are very closely related.

    • I don’t know if we have a basis to say that this is what chances are.

      It seems to me that when we find similarities between those we believe to be genetically related it’s very easy to attribute them, in whole or in part, to genetics. In an instance like this, where the women were raised thousands of miles apart, it clearly isn’t having grown up in the same family.

      But each of us possess so many attributes, perhaps we overemphasize the ones we find in common with our genetic (or thought-to-be genetic) kin, while we underemphasize the ones where there is divergence? I would expect than when the women met (or first made contact) they would look for similarities. If you are looking, perhaps you find them.

  4. The basis for saying so is that their genetic testing showed that they were 56 times more likely to be related than an average caucasian.

    However, when I was genetically tested with my sister we were shown to be 266,000 times more likely to be related than the average caucasian. My sister and I are in fact full sisters and very alike.

  5. Most probably the underlying basis to their feeling of similarity and connection was not just the false perception of the genetic connection, but the longing to have one. Longing for something often makes us perceive what isn’t there.

  6. While we’re at it, I’ll weigh in as a sibling with disconnect from my biological siblings, though we were all raised together.
    but I still support genetics as the primary basis for kinship. Because our sense of self and our place in this world must be rooted in something immutable and constant, not something that that changes by the day, like personal choice, mood, and yes, subjective perceptions of similarity and connection.

  7. I dare to add that the genetic connection that I have with my siblings is all the more important given our divergent character, values, and lifestyles- the immutability of our genetic relationship remains, when there is nothing else to bind us together.

  8. @kisarita and Julie, I agree that the need to find commonality can alter perception.

    Horoscope readers believe the message in the newspaper is perfect for them, yet if you randomized the signs they would never know the difference.

    It’s fascinating to me that bio. kids often have a phase where they’re convinced they were adopted because they don’t feel they fit in. They think their alienation must arise from genetics instead of the quite typical stress of growing up.

    @Sandy, we cannot necessarily conclude that the Donor Link women are likely to be related. First, the company itself admitted that its statistics were faulty. Second, the fact that you are a thousand times more likely to be related to person X than to the average person is not the whole story — you also need to know the degree of confidence that the positive result was not due to chance.

    That is, how many unrelated people among all the millions in the country would give you the same score as person X?

    These DNA marker statistics are already controversial in forensics because their correct use depends on our limited understanding of the genetic diversity of human populations.

  9. This article has nothing to do with repro-tech or the use of “birth others” but it might help some to better understand how profoundly important it is (for many) to have meaningful connections to the people we come from (whose life we travel through) – for our own sense of personal identity, roots and emotional/psychological well being.

    “Argentine stolen at birth, now 32, learns identity

    By MICHAEL WARREN, Associated Press Writer Michael Warren, Associated Press Writer – Tue Feb 23, 7:34 pm ET
    BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – The search is finally over for Abel Madariaga, whose pregnant wife was kidnapped by Argentine security forces 33 years ago.

    After decades of doubt and loneliness, of searching faces in the street in hopes they might be related, Madariaga has found his son.

    “I never stopped thinking I would find him,” the 59-year-old father said, squeezing his son’s arm during a packed news conference Tuesday.

    “For the first time, I know who I was. Who I am,” the young man said, still marveling at his new identity: Francisco Madariaga Quintela, a name he only learned last week.”

    Read full article here:

  10. Important Link by a genetics scholar which provides a very different, ESSENTIAL understanding of this story:


  11. “I don’t know any way to determine how much of the evidence for the importance of genetic connections is a product of our belief it the importance of genetic connections and how much is “real.”

    Its a sad story because donor kids grew up knowing only one half of their respective families since their father was anonymous to their mothers at the time they were both conceived. Of course they wanted to be alike they’d waited so long, I could see how they’d find arbitrary similarities. No the similarities were not real genetic similarities, in the end it makes them friends but not family.

    Thats the difference unrelated people that share something in common are just friends but they can never be real family. Is real family important? Yes, we are suppose to know what our real family looks like and where they are at so that we can not have sex with them for one and also so that we can take care of eachother. We are suppose to take care of eachother it does not always work out that way, thats when strangers step in and perform the duties that a mother father or sister should be performing.

    But they are not real mothers fathers or sisters no matter how much better they may be at doing the job of our own family its still not your real family.

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