Is 23andMe's 'Root for Your Roots' World Cup Promotion Racist?

A bioethicist argues that the genetic testing company is fostering pseudoscientific bigotry by urging customers to pick a soccer team based on their ancestry.



The direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe is "using genetics to sponsor racism," claims the bioethicist Arthur Caplan. That is a serious charge if true. So what has gotten Caplan all het up?

Evidently something called the "World Cup" has just gotten started. I believe it is some kind of sporting competition involving teams that hail from different countries. As I understand it, the U.S. team did not make the cut and so will not be participating in the competition. So if American sports fans want to experience whatever vicarious thrills (dopamine fluctuations) come from backing one team over another in an athletic competition, they can pick one of the national teams that did qualify for the World Cup thingy. But how to choose? Throw a dart at the matchups poster? Flip coins? Pick the team with a uniform that features your favorite color?

This is where 23andMe's "Root for Your Roots" promotion comes in. The company suggests that American customers casting about for a national team to support may want to take into account the origins of their ancestors. I am certain that many of my more sports-minded friends are already preparing to yell at their televisions in support of teams from France, Germany, Russia, Poland, England, or Sweden based on their families' immigration histories.

Caplan asserts that Root for Your Roots "is built on bogus science about the genetics of how we define nations and ethnic groups." He says "it appeals to the racism in us to pick a team we can root for." But is that so? Regarding Caplan's bogosity claim, 23andMe explains that it compares its customers' genotype results with those in 31 reference data sets that include genotypes from more than 11,000 people who were chosen to reflect populations that existed before transcontinental travel and migration were common (at least 500 years ago). The company is careful to explain what its test can and cannot tell people about their ancestries.


To determine customers' recent ancestor locations, 23andMe looks for pieces of DNA that they have in common with individuals of known ancestry from over 120 countries and territories in Europe, Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Oceania. The company notes that sections of DNA sometimes resemble reference DNA in several populations, in which case customers are assigned to broad ancestry classifications. In my case, the company's algorithm reports that 99.6 percent of my genes derive from European populations, with 43 percent associated with British and Irish populations and 31 percent being broadly northwestern European. As it happens, I carry more Neanderthal gene variants than do 86 percent of 23andMe's other customers. Just saying.

So genotype testing as a way to probe ancestry is certainly not scientifically bogus. But does 23andMe's promotion appeal to the racism in us? It is true that a few white supremacists holding confused notions of genetic essentialism have used genotype tests to confirm their pale purity. But it seems highly unlikely to me that 23andMe ancestry composition results will nudge the average customer toward athletic racism.

In a counterpoint to Caplan, George Quraishi, the founder of the magazine Howler, which evidently covers whatever sport is being played by the teams involved in the World Cup tournament, argues cogently that "rooting for your ancestors doesn't make you racist." Quraishi observes that a "fan can usually explain why he chose to love his team, but there is seldom any logic to it." Had the U.S. team qualified to compete in the World Cup series, would the fact that American fans cheered for it have made them racist hooligans? As Quraishi points out, the worst that is apt to happen if for whatever reason you decide to pick a team "is that you'll waste a few hours of your life screaming at a TV show featuring two groups of men who are being paid millions of dollars to determine who is more proficient at placing a small orb between two sticks."

I don't get it, but lots of psychological research finds that rooting for sports teams is beneficial to fans. One research review "indicates that high levels of identification with teams with readily available social connections are associated with many indices of social well-being, including lower levels of loneliness and alienation, and higher levels of collective self-esteem, personal self-esteem, frequency of experiencing positive emotions, extroversion, conscientiousness, and social life satisfaction." Go figure.

My 23andMe results suggest that I might consider rooting for England, Germany, or France. If DNA test results don't incline a customer toward a team, the company offers the rest of the participating countries as a bunch of wild cards. If I had to choose, I would pick Costa Rica, for no better reason than that I worked at the Tico Times for a while back in the 1990s. I think I will instead watch the competitions on World of Dance. I just can't decide between team Charity & Andres and team Josh & Taylor.