If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you know that I am a strong proponent of genetic testing for genealogical purposes. I believe that when used correctly genetic testing can serve as a valuable tool in the genealogist’s toolbox.
A recent visitor found my blog with the search term “is genetic genealogy a scam?” When I recreated the search, I discovered that a previous post on this blog is the leading link for this search. The process made me think about the many people who are skeptical or wary of genetic genealogy. As a scientist, I appreciate and encourage healthy skepticism. After all, genetic genealogy has been available for less than a decade, and it has changed considerably since it was first offered. I believe that anyone who forays into the world of genetic genealogy should have a basic understanding of the science and the application of the results. Just reading about genetic genealogy in the media can give one a distorted view of the technology. Along this point, I recommend reading an interesting article by Rebecca Skloot (author of the upcoming book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which I can’t wait to read). I was referred to that article by a post on her blog (Culture Dish) entitled “The Bogus-ness of DNA Testing for Genealogy Research” in which she reiterates the point that genetic genealogy tests “simply can’t tell you anything definitive about your heredity unless you’re testing your DNA and comparing it to someone else’s to find out if you’re related.”
I agree with Ms. Skloot – the skepticism and wariness about genetic genealogy comes from the interpretation of the results. As a scientist, I believe that a DNA sequence is a DNA sequence and a person can’t argue with those results. But, using that DNA sequence to tell a person that they are 50% Native American is the type of data interpretation that should be viewed skeptically. It can be exciting, but the science is still too new. For me, the verdict is still out on autosomal testing (click on About Genetic Genealogy at the top of the page to learn more about autosomal testing).
On the other hand, I strongly believe in mtDNA and Y-DNA testing. The results are nothing but DNA sequence and an approximate haplogroup determination. These tests CAN tell you if your Y chromosome or your mtDNA is Native American or distinctly European. The information from these test can serve a multitude of functions. For example, I run a surname project to determine if all people in North America and Europe with my surname are descended from the same German family. I am able to answer this type of question using genetic genealogy as a tool.
Genetic genealogy best serves people who are ready for genetic testing to add to their basket of knowledge. It is not as well suited for people who have no experience in genealogical research or who know nothing about their past (unless, of course, they are unable to know anything about their past – then it’s perfect), although it can still be a useful tool for the beginner.
Genetic genealogy is definitely not a hoax. DNA sequence can be a very useful and exciting addition to a genealogist’s research, IF that genealogist is aware of meaning and consequences of genetic testing. If you have any questions or thoughts about the usefulness of genetic genealogy, leave a comment below.
Note: When writing this post I attempted to find other online sources or blogs that had discussed this topic. Unfortunately, I failed to discover a fantastic review of the subject written by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak at the Family History Circle (available here). If your interest was piqued by my post, please be sure to read hers.Â Interestingly, the format of the posts are remarkably similar and both mention the article and blog post by Ms. Skloot (although in much more detail at Family History Circle)! Nothing like re-inventing the wheel!