Can a Genealogist Refuse to Use DNA Evidence?

The answer is, of course, yes. A genealogist can refuse to use any evidence they don’t want to use. There is no Evidence Police. The real question, therefore, is whether the research from a genealogist refusing to use DNA evidence can be considered complete and reliable IF AND ONLY IF that DNA evidence: (1) would have shed light on the question (to either support or refute the hypothesis); AND (2) could have been obtained.

The GPS and DNA Evidence

DNA evidence has been available to genealogists since 2000, although it has only reached what one might call a “critical mass” of awareness within the genealogical community in the past 5-10 years. As a result of the proliferation of DNA testing, a spotlight is currently aimed at DNA evidence, including when it should be used and how it should be used.

The Genealogical Proof Standard mandates reasonably exhaustive research, which most have interpreted to include DNA evidence. Indeed, many genealogical scholars and researchers have previously agreed that reasonably exhaustive research includes DNA when it is helpful and available (i.e., when it can shed light on a question, when there are willing test-takers, when it is ethical, and so on). In genealogical scholarship, peer-reviewers are likely to increasingly expect DNA evidence when it is helpful/available.

And even if you have issues with the GPS, which I know some do, you must still use some other gauge or standard for accumulating evidence and reaching a conclusion, and/or evaluating the conclusions of others. Even if it is an entirely personal standard in your own head. How does DNA fit into that gauge or standard? Should DNA evidence be utilized when it is helpful/available? If you read an article or blog post that doesn’t use DNA, does your brain wonder why they didn’t use DNA or whether DNA would have helped?

When should DNA evidence be required? Always when helpful/available? Never?

Genetic Exceptionalism – Good or Bad?

This issue immediately butts up against the issue of genetic exceptionalism.

What would you think if a researcher told you that they NEVER use ANY census record because census-takers were notoriously unreliable and the people providing the information were often guessing? Or a researcher tells you that they avoid birth certificates because 1-2% of fathers were incorrectly reported? How would you feel about their genealogical conclusions?

I’ve never run into anyone that refuses to use census or birth records, but I’ve run into many people who refuse to use DNA records.

Refusing to use DNA records because of the potential ELSI (ethical, legal, and social issues) involved – and not doing the same thing for all other types of records –  is genetic exceptionalism. Every record is capable of revealing misattributed parentage, for example. For the vast majority of people, a recorded family history is currently MUCH better at revealing a likelihood of disease than a DNA test.

Is genetic exceptionalism OK? Doesn’t genetic exceptionalism beg for regulation? In other words, if DNA evidence is so concerning, shouldn’t it be regulated? Considering how few legislators are scientists or have any scientific education, I rarely consider legislators to be a good source of scientific oversight.

But Enter Privacy Concerns

Let’s ignore genetic exceptionalism for now, since it is arguably more of an outcome than an input into this conversation.

On the other hand, what if a genealogist has concerns about privacy that they believe trump the need for DNA evidence? Or they live in a country where genetic testing is possible but not favored? For example, what if a genealogist believes that the risk of discovering misattributed parentage is too high, and therefore they cannot in good conscience ask their relatives – much less strangers – to take a DNA test? Or believe that the genetic information will be misused?

Is this concern strong enough to negate the perception that DNA evidence might be required when helpful/available?

We Need to Discuss This

I don’t know what any of the answers are. I use DNA evidence because I believe it is extremely powerful, and because I believe that people should know their genetic heritage. But I recognize that many disagree.

I do know, however, that we need to have these discussions as DNA evidence becomes more readily available. And, perhaps, as genetic privacy and protections are potentially under assault.


Postscript – PLEASE Read if you Want to Join the Conversation

Above I asked whether research from a genealogist refusing to use DNA evidence can be considered complete and reliable IF AND ONLY IF that DNA evidence: (1) would have shed light on the question (to either support or refute the hypothesis); AND (2) could have been obtained.

Comments here or on social media about DNA not helping in all situations or not requiring DNA in unethical situations or from people or places that don’t want to provide DNA or don’t allow DNA testing, are completely outside the scope of this conversation and therefore not helpful.





18 Responses

  1. dan 12 March 2017 / 3:14 pm

    ” If you read an article or blog post that doesn’t use DNA, does your brain wonder why they didn’t use DNA or whether DNA would have helped?” — Sometimes, but not often, at least in genealogy (compared to anthro, where now I expect the researchers to try and gather DNA if at all possible.)

    What I *am* wondering about is the field of genealogy, and how DNA is perhaps heightening the bifurcation between what I’ll call the academic discipline and the hobby.

    From my interactions online with people inquiring about DNA, I gather that the technicality of the whole field is quite a hurdle for many people.

    • Roberta Estes 12 March 2017 / 7:19 pm

      It is Dan, and I think many of the DNA conclusions that I see are based on a flawed understanding of what DNA tells us about genealogy. So the question isn’t only about the conclusions, but how those conclusions were reached so the reader can determine whether the conclusion is accurate.

      • Neill Gertis 13 March 2017 / 9:25 am

        Amen sister… and then we are back to the Census takers.
        Today, it is the issues of the evolving genetic testing industry and our training as self-taught interpreters (I think I just said what you did). Well, at least we agree.

  2. Brian Palmer 12 March 2017 / 9:12 pm

    My wife’s family has had a longstanding mystery about who the father was of her 3rd great grandfather. He had a different last name than the man his mother was married to, so scandal was concluded. A Y-DNA test was taken, and showed that he matched multiple descendants of relatives of the man his mother was married to, meaning there was no scandal. His dad kicked him out of the house at age 14 and he changed his last name when he moved to America.

    Our sister-in-law rejects the DNA evidence – she was the chief perpetrator of the scandal and it just feels right to her. We are having a “tree war” on FamilySearch. Ha ha. I’ll reference your work as I edit her comments.

  3. Doris 13 March 2017 / 8:37 am

    Without DNA, no one would ever have known that my father’s father was not biological; without DNA, I would never have learned that his mother had had a liaison and who his probable father was. My grandmother, after ten years of a barren marriage, evidently made the decision to solve the problem. Rather than it being a scandal, I view her choice as a sign of incredible courage in 1904. Her marriage was never threatened and they all lived happily ever after.

  4. Richard 13 March 2017 / 8:43 am

    Great Blog. Thanks. I loved the line – For the vast majority of people, a recorded family history is currently MUCH better at revealing a likelihood of disease than a DNA test.

    Of course, I believe that a DNA test should be used to verify lines when at all possible under the right conditions. Sometimes DNA gives us additional questions we might not have asked ourselves that might lead to a better conclusion. Certainly, a genealogist has that right to refuse DNA. If so, finding another genealogist would be my answer.

  5. Dana Sheldon 13 March 2017 / 8:44 am

    Any DNA test is only as good as the database provided.

    DNA is just another piece of evidence we can use to trace ones lineage.

    Too much is being made by companies like that makes one think their answers will be answered with a $99 test.

  6. Barbara Shoff 13 March 2017 / 9:51 am

    I believe that DNA testing is the way to verify the written records and by all means once a person knows via DNA, the records can be duplicated from other’s (no need to reinvent the wheel) and ones personal added research once you know who you are. DNA doesn’t lie when you know how to read it. Triangulation and understanding segments is key to this research that many are only now coming to understand. Books like yours help us gain that understanding. Thank you!+

  7. Emily 13 March 2017 / 4:31 pm

    Excellent blog, Blaine (but that isn’t new…your blogs are great!). Like any other genealogy source, it is important to explore them all. I’m sure the case could be made that in some circumstances DNA testing isn’t needed, but as we all know our ancestors never told us everything and in some cases didn’t even know. One would think that we know our parents and grandparents, but that is not always the case. My second cousin discovered only after she and I took the autosomal test at FTDNA that her father was illegitimate. He may have not known as his mother was married at the time to another man. She had two of four children with another man while married. The family knew of one, but not her father.

    SO, all sources are important to explore…and, of course, you can’t always obtain a DNA sample you need, but to not try is the shame. To refuse to use DNA is, IMO, based on the lack of understanding about DNA tests for genealogy. The lack of knowledge creates fear, and Marie Curie said: “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.”

  8. Taryn 13 March 2017 / 8:51 pm

    Great question! To me, it depends very much on the goal of the research. If the question is “Who raised great-grandma and what was her life like?” or even, “What story did she tell about her ancestry?”, then one might well be able to answer the question without DNA evidence. (She presumably didn’t have access to DNA after all.) On the other hand, if the question is “Who are great-grandma’s biological parents?” then DNA evidence should enter into the picture. (The catch here is that the questions are often conflated, which brings us round to the terminology question of geneology vs family history. )

  9. Carol A. Preece 13 March 2017 / 10:12 pm

    I think that negative evidence when known to the researcher must be referenced when analyzing an issue. Take the case of the Luddite sister-in-law in an earlier comment. It would be sufficient to say that if DNA evidence is excluded a different conclusion can be made.
    that way people reading the piece would understand the different conclusion of the sister in law.

  10. Cmfilipiak 14 March 2017 / 11:33 am

    DNA has helped me confirm many years of old fashion genealogy research. It also helped me uncover who my biological maternal grandfather is and his family. DNA research is a lot of work. Sometimes I have to research various branches of my DNA match to find our common ancestor because their tree stopped short.

  11. Deb Lindsley 19 March 2017 / 9:12 am

    One of my maternal great grandparents was known to be adopted. A couple of his daughters and granddaughters told me as far as they knew, he never knew his parentage. So, though I’ve come up with possibilities of parentage, I’ve never been able to verify any of them. For that reason his ancestral line stops with him. My mother said my own father didn’t like me because he didn’t believe I was his child. I often wished I weren’t his biological child, but never believed I wasn’t.. I recently submitted an autosomal DNA test that shows a very close match with my first cousin, son of my father’s sister. In submitting my DNA, my hope is to find a close familial relationship that will lead to discovery of my maternal great grandfather’s parentage. There are also a few less direct lines that might benefit due to adoption and early parental deaths. I believe DNA results can assist in knocking down brick walls and can verify existing research. It’s another tool in our toolbox. I believe all genealogists have the right to refuse to use DNA results, but is it the smart thing to do? IMO, no.

  12. Carl H. Bloss 19 March 2017 / 11:22 am

    I have a concern of the companies selling the DNA products misrepresenting what DNA can or cannot do for a person. The explaining seems to be the fine print rather than upfront. I have found personal answers in both a positive and a negative manner from my DNA work. As a genealogy skills teacher I tried to keep up with the game – thankful for people as yourself who can lay it out straight

  13. Pat Curtis 19 March 2017 / 5:55 pm

    I would like to know which DNA tests for me to get for myself and fraternal twin sons to get the most information abt our heritage-mine and their fathers, my husbands side. My husband of 61 yrs died of sepsis 5 yrs ago, their father so unable to get a DNA from him. I started in 1979 when our first grand child was born. I have put mine in – and my husbands in separately programs, because we found early on we each had first cousins divorced and married each other’s first cousins although they did not have any children in the second marriages. Also we do have a daughter 5 yrs 5 months older than the twins living in Hawaii and don’t know if having her tested would help and give us more information as she has part of me and part of her father’s give us/me more family information? I am 85 yrs young paying for all as 1 twin/son and I live in the same town and other son abt 10 miles away in another small town. Thank you very much for advising me which DNA tests would be the best for each of us to take. Kind Regards and God Bless-In God We Trust !

  14. Betsy 21 March 2017 / 12:24 pm

    DNA testing is yet again the latest new thing, the latest fad, and is seen as a panacea to many. To me, it is a potentially useful source of information, to be used, or not, as needed. But also, for me, it is not worth diverting from my main focus, because my focus is the stories, the historical context, the “what were they doing, what were they feeling.” I’d say in sum that what we in this discipline need to remember is that there are many, many ways to approach the Big Umbrella of Genealogy, and no one should dismiss another’s focus. Unless, of course, that other focus is part of the “I don’t bother with sources” mob. Just my opinion!

  15. David 25 April 2017 / 2:26 am

    My viewpoint is that DNA evidence is primary evidence of a biological connection whereas much records based evidence is secondary evidence of varying degrees of reliability. For example mothers identity on a birth certificate is of very high reliability , fathers identity a little less so but still very significant. Up until DNA testing became available the records based evidence was the most important source but as we know on occasions has proved to be wrong. Where a primary source is available and you choose not to use I can’t see how one can claim ones research is verified to the highest degree. I have heard a significant number of people indicate that they do not intend to use DNA evidence/testing because it may show that record based evidence such as birth certificates are wrong in some respects, large efforts in time and expenditure will be shown to be wasted and the emotional impact of discovering that connections are different to what they have believed are too high. I expect this issue will be with us for some time not only because of the technical and ethical aspects but the emotional aspect is also very significant.

  16. Richard McMurtry 13 October 2017 / 9:45 pm

    I have used DNA testing for 15 years and found the male DNA testing to be of enormous value in separating lines of the same surname who crossed paths in a given county. I have also found that some people react with gratitude when DNA evidence shows the error of long standing family tradition and others react with suspicion and doubt.

    I have found that the autosomal DNA testing (called Family Finder on Family Tree DNA) is more problematic. We had an almost exact y-dna match on two different surnames and then did autosomal and found that 1 of the 3 for the first surname matched the other surname descendants on 6 of 8 samples, the 2 of 3 matched on 2 of 8 samples and the 3rd of 3 matched on none of the samples. Such wide disparity of results throws all the results into question. WE can’t tell whether the differences are due to differential amounts of the linking surname dna or due to the links being through collateral lines.

    In such situations, it is necessary to determine all 16 of the great grandparents for all sample donors in order to show that only through the linkage being tested in their a possibility of a link. IN some cases, determining all 32 of the great great grandparents is needed. This is an enormous research burden. However, I notice that in the last 10 years, has accumulated so many family trees that it is often possible to trace back parts of lineages for sample donors that would not previously have been possible.

    I think that Y-DNA should be considered as primary evidence as far as showing descent from a common ancestor but not for showing any specific parentage and for proving non-kinship for people having the same surname in a given locale.


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