DNA and the Past

Author: Jerome De GrootSenior Lecturer in the Department of English and American Studies at the University of Manchester, UK

To what extent does genetic science influence the way that we think about the past?

Can DNA sequencing to support family history research be understood as historical investigation?

Is genetic science a kind of public historical work?

Are genetics companies, DNA genealogists, and archaeogeneticists acting as public historians and contributors to the contemporary globalised historical imaginary?

This is part of Crick and Watson’s 1953 model for DNA, now in the Science Museum, London. Photo by Jerome De Groot.

My project, Double-Helix History, investigates these questions. Over the last decade it has become clear that DNA is changing the way we think about the past. Moreover, over the last six months it seems like we have come to a tipping point. DNA and the past are increasingly intertwined in public: late-night host Stephen Colbert makes jokes about DNA testing for family history; DNA testing is now so prevalent it is worthy of parody in advertising; newspaper columnists discuss its popular usage; and daytime TV considers how DNA kits might change the way people think about their identity. The series South Park premiered an episode with a satirical riff on ethnicity, TV, and DNA family history, demonstrating the increased profile and range of purposes now associated with DNA testing.

DNA testing for various reasons – family history, health, identity, ethnicity – is increasingly prevalent and is becoming influential in the way that people think about their relationship to their individual pasts, connecting with their ancestors and the human population more widely through their biodata.

On the one hand, this wide popular reception is simply due to numbers; the genealogy information company AncestryDNA now has over 7 million customers using and contributing to its DNA database (the biggest commercial DNA database in the world). The company has worked hard to sell the testing kits: partnering with Disney (the film Coco), making contributions to the debate around Brexit, and intervening in Australian debates about migration and identity. DNA testing for family history is big business, and global [1]. Genetic genealogy is a huge growth area, blurring the lines between participant, user, client, practitioner, and professional. Family history was already a radical force in public history, capable of challenging the normative and undermining the rational. Now, it evolves into something even more complicated through the intervention of DNA evidence.

On the other hand, it is related to the huge increase in work on ancient DNA (a-DNA), largely driven by a number of labs around the world and several influential figures such as David Reich (Harvard), Svante Paabo (Leipzig) and Eske Willerslev (Copenhagen). A number of popular science books have sought to address this shift, from Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived to Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here. The history of the human is being rewritten and reorganised, and turned into ‘genomic history’. As Reich argues, DNA investigations are ‘forcing the hand of this discussion in archaeology’ and driving changes in historical understanding. They are also changing the public’s understanding of the past, through widely reported interventions such as Cheddar Man or the Beaker People.

DNA is changing our knowledge of prehistory, and our understanding of contemporary selfhood. It is powerfully contributing to discourses around history, authenticity, truth, identity, and self.

How can we understand the work that is being done here from a public history point of view? We need to look at the practice of individuals, think about wider popular and cultural understanding, and consider the interventions of major biodata companies. The investigation of this complex nexus of information demands a hybrid approach, and is fundamentally international. DNA investigation is international insofar as it works across borders to connect individuals to wider populations; it also challenges modern notions of ethnicity and identity. It is important, too, to think carefully about how these new sources of information challenge understanding of the public, of history, and of memory. Where is the archive here, and what is the historiography? What kind of epistemological changes are we undergoing due to conceiving of the human as something reducible to data?

[1] See Jerome de Groot, ‘The Genealogy Boom: Inheritance, Family History, and the Popular Historical Imagination’ in The Impact of History? Histories at the Beginning of the 21st Century ed. Bertrand Taithe and Pedro Ramos Pinto (London and New York: Routledge, 2015), pp. 21-34.


-Jerome de Groot is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English and American Studies at the University of Manchester, UK. He works on the representation of history in contemporary popular film, television, drama and games; as well as the literature of the period 1640-1660.


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