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Genetic Genealogy at CBC’s Marketplace

Dr. Moran at Sandwalk brought to my attention a recent segment about genetic genealogy on Marketplace called “Who’s Your Grand Daddy?” Marketplace is a Canadian television program. In his post, Dr. Moran states:

“I’m disturbed by the fact that we have a number of prominent bloggers pushing DNA testing. You’d think they would be all over this story. You’d think that they would be in the front lines in the attack on unscrupulous private companies who are overselling the idea of tracing your ancestors through your DNA. If you thought that you’d be wrong. Some of these bloggers are even denying there’s a problem.”

granddad_phixr.JPGDuring the Marketplace segment, Johnna – a woman they interview who is interested in learning more about her ancestry – discovers that she belongs to Haplogroup H. Unfortunately, Johnna had expected to learn more about her ancestry, such as the names of ancestors. It would appear that Johnna did not do any research about genetic genealogy.

The journalist then wonders how the company (it happens to be Genebase) can make a claim that Johnna is related to Marie Antoinette. However, the results reveal that Johnna IS related to Marie Antoinette through her maternal line. They both belong to Haplogroup H, meaning that they both descended through their maternal line from a single woman. The problem at this point is that the DEGREE of relation is not clear – most importantly, it is not clear to many potential customers. This is the problem that has prompted so many journalists to pen articles or film segments.

The segment also attempts to drill home the fact that we are all from Africa. The statement is true, but there’s no reason to stop at that simplistic answer. There are many scientists who are working on this field of research, attempting to refine the analysis from “we are all from Africa” to “this DNA is strongly associated with this location.” Our DNA has changed in those last 150,000 years, and we can learn things from those changes.

I should also point out that regular readers know that I agree that more education is needed. The system is not perfect – I certainly don’t think genetic genealogy is a scam, but on the other hand there is always more room for the education of customers.

Genetic genealogy is not an invention of business. It was created by anthropologists, published in peer-reviewed articles, and borrowed by business. In the end, Johnna received the results of her test and an assignment into an mtDNA haplogroup based upon the scientific analysis. Unfortunately, Johnna incorrectly believed that she would be receiving much more.

The question comes down to this – who is responsible for the education of consumers? I am a person who thinks it is 50/50. The company should be as honest as possible and attempt to educate the consumer (and I agree that more can be done by these companies to increase awareness), and the consumer should do their best to learn more. Almost every genetic genealogy company has a website that contains a “learn more” section, and customer should read it before ordering. A quick check shows that Genebase has a “learn more” section as well, available here. Before you buy any expensive product, you should do some research first.

By the way, the strangest part of the video was when they googled “Genographic” and found ads for Genebase, as if that was a sign of bad business practice. Sort of bizarre.

Blaine Bettinger

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

10 Comments

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  2. By the way, the strangest part of the video was when they googled “Genographic” and found ads for Genebase, as if that was a sign of bad business practice.

    Maybe not “bad” for their short-term bottom line. But Genebase’s marketing is built around tricking people trying to participate in the National Geographic Genographic project into paying them, which I certainly consider unethical.

  3. I’m not very familiar with Genebase’s marketing, but I will say that their use of the term “participation kit”, similar to Genographic, is disquieting.

    Even so, the google bit was rather silly and certainly not the best way to address the concern.

  4. I don’t know exactly what catagory my comment should be placed in,but here it is.
    I had my DNA tested because I ran into a wall in researching my family. There is no paperwork. My
    intention was to find some matching DNA results, that would give me a direction to look for relatives. I had no expectations of finding uncle louie, or whoever, just an area of the world, to start my search. I found that my DNA does not match
    anyone in the world, other than a second cousin ,known to me. (I asked him to get his tested, just to verify mine.) Now I do not blame the company that tested my DNA, nor do I think I am from Mars. The problem, is that for some reason, people have DNA testing done, then do not let their results be posted.They want answers, but are not willing to share their information. I have found this same problem with regular Geneology, I have written to researchers with the same surname, in the area of my research, any they do not respond to my questions.I don’t know if these people are afraid I will steal all there hard work, or if they have taken opertunities, that were handy and not based in fact, and are afraid someone will discover their misleading facts,(pronounced “LIES”. Geneaology, be it thru DNA, or paperwork takes people working together, and a certain amount of trust. The fact that I can’t connect with anybody with my Surname, could mean my surname was changed at some point, I don’t care. My vanity is not going to change the truth.
    So, if you wan’t to do geneology, by DNA, or Paperwork, Which is needed to prove fact anyway, share your results with others, you may learn something in the end.Also ask others to do the same, and let us expand the databases so we can all get the answers we are seeking.

  5. Anyone who believes they will receive a completed pedigree chart along with their DNA results hasn’t done their homework, at all. Sounds like someone with more money than sense.

  6. I’ve been researching genebase as I want to order my DNA. My question is, which is not answered on the site is…. “Do they have a database of DNA samples from hunreds, or thousands of years ago. For instance. My relatives are from Italy, and for a fact I know have paperwork dating back to 1700’s…. Will they be able to match my DNA with DNA from samples taken from samples from the Roman Era???

  7. Steve – genetic genealogy typically uses DNA from modern-day populations to draw conclusions about ancient or pre-modern populations. So your DNA isn’t compared to ancient DNA samples, it’s compared to results of other modern-day people.

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