DNA USA : a genetic portrait of America

by Bryan Sykes

Book, 2012



Call number

GN290.U6 S95


Publisher Unknown


Crisscrossing the continent, a renowned geneticist provides a groundbreaking examination of America through its DNA.

User reviews

LibraryThing member annbury
In large part, I must agree with the previous reviewer's negative assessment of "DNA USA"'. Even more than "The Seven Daughters of Eve", this book dilutes interesting scientifiic material with a lot of personal anecdote, in this case including long stretches of not very interesting travelogue.
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Moreover, and unlike "Daughters", much of the information on genetics presented in this book is based on the genetics of an individual person, rather than of a group of people, That means tiny sample sizes, and that limits the value of the information as a evidence of historical trends. Finally, the book isn't very well organized. Along with the heavy dose of travelogue, this made it for me at least a tiresome book to read, So far, this isn't a book that I would recommend.

BUT -- a lot of the information on genetics that Dr. Sykes presents is really, really interesting. The material on African American genetics was fascinating, and so was the discussion of how individual African Americans reacted to learning about their DNA, The discussion of why many Native American groups have refused genetic testing was enlightening, as was the discussion of the legal issues involved.

Finally, many readers may find something in this book thats personally relevant to them. I did. I'm a European American with some Southern ancestors, and was was fascinated by the differences between Sykes" New England white DNA samples (totally Eurpoean, with one exception) and his Southern white DNA samples (mostly European, but about 8% African on average). That should send my racist Southern Grandaddy spinning in his grave. On content and interest, then, I'd give this a five. Averging that with two for form gives me three and a half stars -- and, incidentally, a review that's way long on personal anecdote!
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LibraryThing member Devil_llama
The title of this book is misleading. The book actually doesn't spend much time on USA, but spends most of the time in Europe. There is a section on Native Americans, and a section on African-Americans, but there is little information given about the findings of the DNA information in the USA in
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general. Much of the book centered on European DNA, a statement that the European descendents in the USA mostly knew their ancestry, and a bunch of travelogue type discussions of a trip across the US, with an occasional foray into the collection of DNA. The actual results are summarized very briefly in the final chapter, but with nothing like the discussion from Seven Daughters of Eve. It is interesting, sure, to know that New Englanders have almost "pure" European DNA, while southerners tend to be more mixed. But it would have been interesting to find out if there were actual patterns, like he did for Europe. To find out who the actual "mothers" were, like he did in Europe (but he focused on Y chromosome DNA here, so that wasn't possible). Also, the book is marred - perhaps fatally marred - by non-scientific suppositions and ridiculous forays into mythology that cannot be supported scientifically. The author appears to be trying to be so politically correct that he is willing to sacrifice scientific correctness, or he is muddle-headed about what his own field can and cannot do. Cohens descended from Aaron? Please explain to me exactly what you did to acquire Aaron's DNA, so you could be sure of that, and also how you can be so surprised by the high amount of relatedness among the Cohens when this is a pattern that showed across every surname you evaluated? And this is merely one of the many flights of fancy that mar a book that is only marginal in the first place.
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LibraryThing member JmGallen
Did you ever wonder where America’s genetic heritage came from? I remember years ago asking a representative of an Indian organization if anyone know just what proportion of America’s ancestry Indians provided. She did not know but “DNA USA” gives us a hint at the answer to this and other
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Author Bryan Sykes explains the science of DNA, as to how it is tested, what it can tell and some interesting facts regarding how we came to be who we are. That ground work having been laid, Sykes takes us through his investigations of various regional ethnic groups, including Indians, white New Englanders, white Southerners and African-Americans, testing their paternal, maternal and composite genetic maps.

The author arrives at some interesting conclusions. Many people have diverse backgrounds. Many Indians find that they have more African and European DNA than Indian. Most African-Americans have some European DNA and among American whites, African DNA is most commonly found among Southerners and least often among the descendents of New England colonialists. The ultimate conclusion is that group identities are really fictions imposed on people of generally diverse genetic backgrounds.

I find the topic of the book to be very interesting although at times the science gets a bit hard to follow. Sykes raises questions about the use of DNA both for possible social purposes and for medical treatment, particularly that fine tuned to presumed racial variables. If you wish to delve into this new frontier in scientific/social research “DNA USA” is a good place to start.
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LibraryThing member jwood652
I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway.
I thoroughly enjoyed it although it was often hard to follow the genetics and the history involved in the different groups that make up the USA. I am also not sure why the DNA paintings of the individual participants in the study were in the middle of
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the book when they weren't explained until later and were not really discussed in any detail until the last chapter. Also why were names of famous people used as aliases. Overall the book is well written and not only opens up a world of DNA but also discusses the history involved and even becomes a travelogue as the author describes his travels across the country collecting the DNA samples. The main things I gained from the book is a desire to find out more about the human genome and a clearer realization that our DNA really comes from many of our ancestors not just our parents. We may identify ourselves as a specific ethnic group but in reality our DNA may hold some interesting surprises. Imagine the KKK member who finds out they have an African ancestor. Basically, our DNA makes us who we are and we are a combination of many generations of ancestors. Depending on how the DNA combines and mutates along the generations some of our ancestors DNA may eventually no longer even exist in our chromosomes. I would love to have my DNA analyzed out of scientific curiosity alone, let alone any specific useful knowledge.
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LibraryThing member heike6
The first half was actually about the genes of Americans, but this information is better obtained from any of a number of other books. The second half was almost entirely a travelogue. I'm not sure what the point of this book was.
LibraryThing member swbesecker
Intriguing text delving into what it might really mean to be "categorized" as American. Interesting facts and truths about Native Americans and why they, as a group of nations, are against DNA testing of their populations. Also notes how much alike we all are at a genetic level, literally and
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figuratively - especially African Americans and European Americans - a truth supported by the science showing a rather un-lopsided/equal sharing of DNA across ethnicities whether you believe it or not. In the end, we are all simply humans who should need no man-made categorization of what makes us different or alike. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all just BE?
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LibraryThing member thornton37814
I really wasn't certain what to expect of Sykes' much-celebrated book on American DNA, but this book was not exactly what I expected. I guess I expected him to describe the various influences on the genetic make-up of of a typical American. I knew that would be a difficult task to tackle, but this
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book was not what I expected. Instead he talks about the various testing companies and tests. He speaks of a group with colonial USA roots he tested at New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. When I read the narrative description, I was certain I knew a few of the persons tested. When I saw their pictures (complete with aliases), I did know about five of those tested. This was the only group that he selected, and he did chromosome painting on them all when he returned to Europe and includes that in an appendix.

The bulk of the book, however, deals with his travels across America. In the trip, he visited various companies and persons influential in the genetic genealogy field. However, he did spend a great deal of time sight-seeing as well. We gain very little insight into what went on in those conversations but have wonderful descriptions of things such as the Yellowstone fire or his bunk on the Amtrak train.

I spotted several inaccuracies throughout the book such as the date of the first American census. Sykes says it was 1800, but it was 1790. Sykes does a wonderful job in the early part of the book of summarizing some DNA studies that had been done in a format appealing to the average reader. He left statistical data for those of us with stronger interests in that sort of thing in the appendix. While the book is worthwhile, it is becoming dated as more studies abound and results of some of the other studies are updated, although I follow the results of one study and know that the overall conclusions have not changed since the book was written. Genetic genealogy is now being taught and studied in institutes and workshops across the United States. The literature of the field is growing with case studies utilizing DNA evidence are being published in journals such as National Genealogical Society Quarterly on a regular basis. While this book will be considered a "pioneer" book in the field, it will likely be overshadowed by the case studies published in journals, by the results of studies published on web sites, and by books with strong case study content.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Geneticist Bryan Sykes had already written books on mitochondrial DNA, Y DNA, and the DNA of the British Isles when he turned his attention to the United States for this book. The US is sometimes referred to as a “melting pot”, and that phrase could be used to sum up this book. It very briefly
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addresses territory covered more thoroughly in his earlier books, and adds autosomal DNA to the mix. He looks at the different attitudes toward DNA testing in African American, Native American, and Jewish American communities, and these discussions lead to discussions of research ethics. I wasn't expecting was the travel narrative that made up the middle portion of the book. Dr. Sykes spent several months traveling in the US while researching this book, and the middle chapters of the book are heavy on the details of the places he saw and the people he met but light on information about genetics and DNA.

Sykes has a gift for explaining a complicated subject in terms that a non-specialist can understand. It's not difficult reading, and I never had to go back and re-read passages in order to understand the concepts presented. I've done a fair amount of reading about genetic genealogy, and he offers the clearest explanation I've seen of why the statistical models that work so well for population geneticists are less accurate at predicting degrees of relationship at the individual level.

The book could have used more careful editing. Sykes places the Tuskegee syphilis study in Arkansas rather than Alabama, and he mistakenly dates Strom Thurmond's filibuster of the Civil Rights Act in 1967 rather than 1957. He also quotes a San Francisco waitress's response to his question about the identity of fellow hotel guest Mike Singletary as “That's their [San Francisco 49ers] chief coach.” I'm certain that she would have said “head coach”, and his American copy editors just missed this.

This book will appeal to readers with an interest in the genealogical applications of DNA. It may also appeal to readers with an interest in the research ethics aspect of books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
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