What is a Genetic Genealogist?

Is there such a thing as a “genetic genealogist” in genealogy today? Should there be such a thing?

In a previous post (“The DNA Era of Genealogy“) we talked about how DNA is a record type, similar to a census record, land record, vital record, or tax record. All of these record types provide evidence that – when combined with other types of evidence – support, weigh against, or reject a genealogical hypothesis.

However, DNA alone cannot prove anything; DNA evidence must be combined with other types of evidence in order to arrive at a solid genealogical conclusion. As a result, it is impossible to be a genetic genealogist and nothing else. To use DNA evidence properly (or at least to its fullest potential), one must also be a good genealogist.

What is Genetic Genealogy? What is a Genetic Genealogist?

Genetic genealogy is the use of DNA evidence in genealogical research. With roots as a commercial enterprise in 2000, this record type has experienced an unparalleled rise in popularity in the past 2-3 years (particularly autosomal DNA).

A genetic genealogist, traditionally, has been defined as someone who uses DNA evidence. Period. However, the term “genetic genealogist” is becoming harder and harder to define due to the immense popularity of DNA evidence. Since so many genealogists (many, many thousands) now employ DNA evidence, each one of them is a genetic genealogist. As a result, it is often proposed now that a genetic genealogist is a professional (usually client-taking) genealogist specializing in DNA evidence. This narrowing of the definition is a direct result of the success of DNA evidence.

Indeed, the term “genetic genealogist” has fallen victim to the success of genetic genealogy. DNA evidence is such an essential component of genealogical research that a genealogist avoiding DNA records is no different than a genealogist shunning census records, probate records, or vital records. As a result, EVERY genealogist MUST be a genetic genealogist, and must have knowledge of how to use and interpret DNA evidence.

Thus, thankfully, the term genetic genealogist has begun to lose its ability to identify genealogists that use DNA evidence as a separate and distinct group. Just as there are no census genealogists (since every genealogist must understand and use census records) and no vital record genealogists (since every genealogist must understand and use vital records), perhaps there should be no genetic genealogists. Instead, perhaps there should only be genealogists that specialize in DNA evidence.

Do not lament the loss of the term genetic genealogist! Indeed, kudos to every genetic genealogist, particularly those that have labored since the pre-atDNA days (before 2007), for making genetic genealogy such a success. It is because of your work and the work of so many genealogists since that DNA evidence is now mainstream and is changing the face of genealogical research. Kudos!

I, for one, am a genealogist specializing in DNA evidence. It’s a mouthful, but it represents the hard work of many, many people, and the success of DNA as a record type. It is also another way to emphasize that the bridge between genealogists and genetic genealogists continues to crumble, thankfully.

What do You Think?

What does the label “genetic genealogist” mean to you? Since DNA has become an essential record type, why do we use “genetic genealogist” if we don’t use “census genealogist”? Does the label “genetic genealogist” foster DNA exceptionalism?



10 Responses

  1. Jim Bartlett 28 December 2016 / 11:01 am

    I believe those of us who blog and subscribe to the various DNA email lists, facebook Groups, etc. are a small percentage of genealogists. Living in the DC area, I often visit the Archives and the DAR Library – I meet many genealogists who can spell DNA, but that’s as far as it goes. I am a Professional Engineer (PE), but I would not “stamp” structural or mechanical drawings, as those are not my areas of expertise. Similarly, I think a genetic genealogist, is a genealogist with some understanding and expertise with DNA as a tool. There are many, good, genealogists who don’t use DNA – and don’t want to – and don’t have to. That’s fine with me – they generally have other skills and add to our genealogy hobby in other ways.

  2. Emily Aulicino 28 December 2016 / 4:31 pm

    I see your point Blaine (and agree…we are phasing us out. LOL), and it is wonderful that the field is widening, but we aren’t there yet. That is, we are not able to just call anyone a genealogist and by doing so infer they use DNA. This is because not all genealogists do.

    To me a genetic genealogist is a person who uses DNA for genealogy. There are still thousands of genealogists who do not use or take DNA tests, so the distinction should still be there, although the circle of those using DNA is widening. Can you name one genealogist who has not used the census? If so, they are the collectors of data on other people’s pedigree charts. I do call them collectors and do mean that is basically all they do is to collect other’s work. And yes, all genealogist are collectors, but of data.

    Keep giving us these thought provoking topics. Your thinking is the wave of the future.

  3. Bonnie Belza 28 December 2016 / 6:37 pm

    Blaine, I would like to see DNA knowledge as a part of every professional genealogist’s resume however, I think there may be more requirements before that knowledge can be assumed or claimed.
    For one, I would argue that documentation of standards for testing, accessing, retrieving and most importantly, interpreting and analyzing DNA are still evolving. For example, I can retrieve the instructions to census takers for decades of U.S. censuses; are there such documents widely available and included with DNA results for the genealogist? Does the documentation describe what company, when and how the tests were done for the time period in question? Evidence I think needs to be able to be re-interpreted in the future and provide the same results, i.e., be reproducible. Until criteria are established and agreed upon by the genealogical community, anyone could claim to be a specialist. For now, we’re where Abraham Lincoln was in becoming a lawyer, studying the available books and materials and becoming recognized for a level of knowledge and experience, if that’s a valid analogy.

  4. Peggy Deras 28 December 2016 / 10:54 pm

    I, for one, am proud to call myself a Genetic Genealogist (though I do not charge for my services). It took me years to earn this label, and I’m not about to give it up easily.
    You, Blaine, have been at this far longer. For you, perhaps, leaving the label you have adopted, and even named your web site for, might be easy.
    Not for me.
    All HAIL Genetic Genealogists!

  5. Ronnie French 30 December 2016 / 1:05 am

    There needs to be a term for people such as you, Mr. Bettinger because there will always be people like me, who needs to learn and understand just what information we are getting from all these DNA tests that we are asking our relatives to do (and, we often pay for).

    I know that the information is important, and interesting to my family members, especially the autosomal (Family Finder, etc.) test results. But, I also know that the mtDNA and YDNA tests will help reveal more. However, I need help with understanding and effectively using the results of all the various tests.

    Without you and those like you, who share their expertise, I would continue to be lost and unable to utilize the DNA and may not even choose to pursue it’s use.

    So, there needs to be a title for those of you who share your expertise in DNA and it’s use. Perhaps, someone might come up with a new title.

  6. Tim Bergin 31 December 2016 / 2:58 pm

    As an Irish American, I started my search for Irish Ancestors by reading Tracing Your Irish Ancestors by John Grenham, who identifies the problems that Catholics have with the lack of records. Our problem: we could not trace John Joseph Bergin (to Ireland.
    Last year, I found my Irish cousins through DNA and so take some issue with the idea that DNA can not be used to prove anything. Our research team, in Ireland and the US, has identified 24 Bergin 2nd and 3rd cousins with significant cMs values. If we had a single match, I would not argue the point, but 24 cousins is strong evidence linking John Bergin to Patrick Bergin (1797) and allowing us to answer the question: “where did we come from?” I look forward to people’s comments (and will appreciate them).

  7. John R. Harrison 31 March 2017 / 1:06 am

    Thanks for your perspective and clarification on this important topic. To add to the issue are those that call themselves “Forensic Genealogist.” I’m still researching this title and its meaning and impact on genealogy. I have found its not the title that makes you a competent genealogist, its the quality of the research you do for yourself and others.
    I am content to call myself a Genealogist and a Family Historian.

    I have read your books, and recommend them. They are an essential tool for those of us seeking to incorporate this record type into our research.

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