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Genetic Genealogy Reporting by Non-Scientists – Be Cautious!

The Guardian, a newspaper based in England, recently published an article about genetic genealogy entitled “The appliance of science. It’s an interesting article that looks at the pros and cons of genetic testing for genealogical purposes.

The journalist quotes Chris Pomery, author of the up-coming book “Family History in the Genes: Trace Your DNA and Grow Your Family Tree.”

“In specific cases, genetics is a very useful tool, but it is not a panacea,” he says. “We’re not even close to the situation where, if you’re starting to research your family history, you should begin with a DNA test. At £100 or so a throw it’s a lot of money, and you can progress your research a long way first for free.”

I agree completely. Genetic genealogy is most useful for researchers that are attempting to verify a specific relationship, or who want to learn more about the ancient sources of their genetic information (for the Y-DNA and mtDNA tests).

However, as is often the case in these types of stories, there were a number of errors in the story.

“What does it mean, for example, for Oprah Winfrey to announce “I am a Zulu” after having a mitochondrial test?

“It’s nonsense,” says Mark Jobling, a geneticist at Leicester University. “Of course she isn’t a Zulu, she’s a modern African-American woman. It’s like people saying, ‘I’m a Viking’. Of course they’re not a Viking, it’s foolish.”

Oprah Winfrey thought she was Zulu BEFORE the mtDNA test. The test conclusively told her that her mtDNA was NOT related to the mtDNA found among the Zulu people! [Correction: See the comment section for an update regarding Oprah’s first mtDNA test, which reportedly DID tell her that her mtDNA was related to the Zulu].

I agree with the author that the results of genetic testing should always be interpreted wisely, and I try to reinforce that point as often as I can. No current genetic test can tell you who you are! Genetic tests can only give you a description your DNA, and based on that you can estimate relationships with others (temporally and geographically).

One of the problems facing the field of genetic genealogy, however, is the number of inaccuracies perpetuated by the media. These articles are often written by non-scientists who don’t completely understand the topic and are making conclusions that aren’t backed up with science.

I recently blogged about some questions that a genetic genealogy newbie had asked about genetic testing. If you have any questions about genetic genealogy, please ask and I will do everything I can to help you discover an answer (that is supported by science)!

Blaine Bettinger

Intellectual property attorney, genealogist, and author of The Genetic Genealogist since 2007

3 Comments

  1. Yeah, I blogged about this topic maybe half a dozen times as well — just dissecting articles with misinformation. In fact, I even took to rating them!

    It’s sort of a blameless crime. The folks who write these pieces don’t have sufficient time to research and write them, so they almost inevitably wind up with some inaccuracies, but the biggest problem is that they generally leave the overall impression that there’s a one-size-fits-all test out there because they don’t have the word-allowance to tackle the nuances.

    One minor correction, though. Oprah actually did make her Zulu claim based on DNA testing, although she never publicly revealed which lab tested her. Then she was re-tested for African American Lives and received a more accurate assessment of her mtDNA line.

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