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Columbia Professor Alondra Nelson Reviews The PBS Series “Faces of America”

Faces of America

In October 2008, I reviewed an article by Dr. Alondra Nelson in the journal Social Studies of Science entitled “Bio Science: Genetic Genealogy Testing and the Pursuit of African Ancestry” (Social Studies of Science 2008 38: 759-783).  The article was about the complex interpretation of the results of genetic genealogy testing by African-Americans and black British.  Dr. Nelson is Associate Professor of Sociology at Columbia University in NY.

On Friday, an article by Dr. Nelson appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Henry Louis Gates’s Extended Family,” which is an introduction and review of the current PBS documentary miniseries Faces of America. Regarding the genetic testing aspect of the show, Nelson writes:

If the findings of conventional genealogical research produce fireworks, the results of the DNA analysis generate shock and awe. “Know Thyself,” the final episode, which shares its title with the slogan of Knome Inc., focuses mostly on genetic genealogy. Whereas prior shows relied heavily on analysis of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and Y-chromosome (Y-DNA), yielding results that included at most about 2 percent of one’s complete genetic inheritance, in Faces techniques are used that probe deeper into more of the genome.

The technical aspects of genetic ancestry tracing are explained, but without sufficient social context, much the way a manual can tell you how to operate a car without explaining automobiles’ role in modern industry, the development of suburbia, or the emergence of youth culture. We can’t hold a documentary for a general audience responsible for not presenting a complex metanarrative on the philosophy of genetic science. But we can expect some acknowledgment and interpretation of technology’s limits.

It is likely that some genetic genealogists will instantly disagree with or discredit Nelson after reading this article, since it might appear that she is being critical of genetic genealogy, but I would disagree.  In my opinion, however, it is important to be aware of Nelson’s concerns, since they are concerns shared by many people across the globe.  For better or for worse, Faces of America will be many individual’s first introduction to genetic genealogy, and without seeing the whole series yet, I hope that Gates does a fair job of introducing this wonderful technology without glossing over its limitations, particularly as they might apply to minority or marginalized populations.

That being said, I also believe that the individual shares the responsibility for understanding this technology before deciding to undergo testing.  We are all responsible, in part, for our own education.

Rather than discrediting genetic genealogy, I believe that Nelson embraces the ability of genetic testing to help some people – and ultimately society – understand our present and our past, as well as how we are all so closely related, either through our genetics or through our shared history.  Indeed, the end of the article ends with the note that Nelson “is at work on a book about genetic ancestry tracing and African diaspora culture,” which I look forward to reading.

What are your thoughts after reading Dr. Nelson’s article?

Faces of America continues every Wednesday evening from 8 – 9 p.m. ET on PBS stations through March 3rd.

Blaine Bettinger

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

3 Comments

  1. Whereas prior shows relied heavily on analysis of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and Y-chromosome (Y-DNA), yielding results that included at most about 2 percent of one’s complete genetic inheritance, in Faces techniques are used that probe deeper into more of the genome.

    OR, this is what I want

  2. To Whom It May Concern,

    I found Dr. Gates and his television show on racial genetic origin interesting as did I find Dr. Nelson’s review of the series equally so. I will be following his future shows and will be looking forward with great anticipation to reading Dr. Nelson’s new book related to the subject.
    Prof. Norman Edward Harris

  3. It is very easy to research your family history. I have been researching family histories for about 8 years and you would be surprised at how much info you can find. You should start with the census, 1930, 1920, 1910…ect… and look to see where your family lived and then look for specific area historic genealogy websites to find out more info. Many are free and contain documents searchable by county or even surname.

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