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When Will They Learn?

Andy Sullivan is a general-assignment reporter for Reuters and just wrote “DNA Tests Don’t Always Help Uncover Family.” The article discusses his recent experience with genetic genealogy, including a Y-DNA and mtDNA test from DNA Ancestry.

Although the article is a little light on the genetic genealogy and incorporates a discussion of an online genealogy database, it is always interesting to read an article by someone who has just been tested. As I was reading the article, the following paragraph jumped out of the page and slapped me in the face:

“These tests promise to reveal long-lost relatives, uncover roots obscured by slavery, or simply allow those curious about where they came from to skip all that tedious digging.”

Ouch. At its best, genetic genealogy can do the first of those two things, if the person has or is willing to do their homework (i.e. traditional genealogical research). Genetic genealogy will rarely allow an individual to skip the wonderful pasttime that is genealogy (or “tedious digging”, as Mr. Sullivan calls it). Am I the only one who loves the “tedious digging”?

Almost every proponent of genetic genealogy attempts to emphasize the fact that testing does NOT promise anything other than sequencing data, perhaps a haplogroup assignment, and some controversial ancestral percentages from autosomal testing. The rest comes from the hard work of research such as comparing results to known or potential relatives, entering the information into DNA databases, and good old-fashioned detective work.

On the other hand, the next paragraph is absolutely true, and one that is not stated enough:

“But as I found out, the results can be underwhelming.”

Tested individuals often find that the results are not as exciting as expected. Of course, that might be due to statements they read that are similar to the ‘promise paragraph’ above.

Blaine Bettinger

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

7 Comments

  1. Thanks Steve. As you know, I believe that genetic genealogy has a lot to offer people (after all, I’ve written 203 posts about it!), but I think everyone benefits if people understand the limitations.

  2. “Am I the only one who loves the ‘tedious digging’?”

    Not as long as I’m breathing. :-)

    Although not at all what I expected, I was fascinated by my uncle’s results, and I see myself “tediously digging” around that mystery for years to come.

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