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The notion, for example, that our genes can be used to trace our personal ancestry far back into the past—say, to Genghis Khan, the Emperor Charlemagne, or one of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt—makes little statistical sense. You may disagree, but to me this comes across as selling something more akin to snake oil than science.

I fear doing this can also be dangerous. Claiming that it is possible to map ancestry in this fashion may be giving new visibility to discredited old ideas about ethnicity and race. To weigh the pros and cons of commercial genetic testing, it is worth working through the numbers.

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Despite the wars, border tensions, and other types of violence that stem from perceptions of human difference, we are approximately In short, we are all cousins. Even when you drill into the specifics of the remaining 0.

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We inherit roughly half our genes from our mothers and half from our fathers. If one or both of them should be unknown to you, it is a safe bet gene profiling may help you track them down. But how far back across the generations can you go and have similarly assured success?

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Go back, say, five more generations to your great, great, great, great grandparents. Only about 1. Good luck should you go looking for them many generations back—or their living descendants. Now go even further back in time to the 17th or 18th century. The number of folks on average living then who could have contributed to your genetic endowment is so large more than 1, , and their possible genetic contribution so small about 0. In fact, most of these people left no trace of themselves in your genome. In short, while it can be hard to get your head around the statistics involved, go back more than a few thousand years and you are genealogically related to almost everyone on Earth.

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