Honoring Our Ancestors: Is Genetic Genealogy Being Oversold? by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

Let me start by putting my bias right out front. In case you don’t already know, I’m a strong proponent of genetic genealogy (which I like to shorten to genetealogy).  I’ve been participating in it since the early days – which is to say, oh, about five-and-a-half years now – and I co-authored a book on the topic.

A Little History
At first, genetealogy was greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism.  For the first couple of years, it was challenging to get editors and conference organizations to accept articles or lectures about DNA.  Around 2003 or so, that started to change and the genealogical world became more curious, and ultimately, receptive.

So in December 2003, those of us immersed in genetic genealogy were thrilled to learn that Popular Science was running an article on our hobby!  Many of us were frustrated, though, when Putting the Gene Back in Genealogy  (by Rebecca Skloot) ran.  Our reaction stemmed from the article’s critical, almost “gotcha!” tone, suggesting that testing companies were guilty of overselling genetic genealogy.  Shortly thereafter, I addressed this in the book I co-authored, Trace Your Roots with DNA (p.100), when I wrote:

“Regrettably, a few critics have dismissed genetic genealogy as misleading at best (it only represents a small part of an individual’s family tree), and harmful at worst (it could reinforce oversimplified or false notions of race and cause identity problems).  By contrast, our experience has been that those who involve themselves in genetealogy are well aware of the limitations and more aware than most of the ambiguity of race.  In spite of concerns that we don’t grasp the fact that a particular test may only provide insight into one branch of our pedigree, or that another test may only reflect our heritage back a few generations, we are curious to learn what can be learned.”

Genetealogy Marches On
Still, genetealogy cranked on, gathering steam and thousands of additional converts.  Fast forward to June 2006.  Rebecca Skloot revisits the topic in her blog with a posting entitled, The Bogus-ness of DNA Testing for Genealogy Research and I experience déjà vu.  Her remarks include two that catch my attention, starting with:

“Their conclusion and mine: These tests can be fun, and they have some definite use in medical research, but they simply can’t tell you anything definitive about your heredity unless you’re testing your DNA and comparing it to someone else’s to find out if you’re related.”

I’m somewhat perplexed by this because genetic genealogy tests actually don’t reveal anything medically, and as a survey conducted last year demonstrates, the vast majority of the testing that’s taking place is being done specifically for the purpose of “comparing it to someone else’s to find out if you’re related.”  This is the norm, not the exception.  The matchmaking game is the essence of Y-DNA testing, which is, by far, the most popular application.  That’s why there are several databases designed explicitly for this purpose.

Skloot’s Roots
A second comment re-ignited my curiosity from the time when the original article appeared.  According to Ms. Skloot, “I had my DNA tested along with the DNA of six of my family members to see if the tests could uncover something you’d never know from looking at me: My great great grandmother was black.”  How did she know this?  She inherited this tale from her grandfather, who in turn, heard it from his aunts, who . . .  you get the idea.  A historical game of telephone tag.

DNA testing for Ms. Skloot described her as 10% Native American and 90% European.  So where, she questioned, was the African ancestry?

Could it be, I wondered, that her family lore was exaggerated or just plain wrong?  So I devoted about half-an-hour to surfing for her roots.  As it turns out, the alleged black ancestor (Elenor, wife of Gideon Hickenbottom) was Ms. Skloot’s great-great-great-great-grandmother — that’s two extra greats, making her of 1/64th African heritage, rather than 1/16th.  And that’s assuming this ancestor was 100% African herself.  So I did a little more digging.

Unfortunately, the only online record that alludes to Elenor’s race is the 1830 census.  She was born circa 1800-1810 and died circa 1834-1839, and like many women of that era, didn’t leave much of a paper trail (although a close examination of Washington County, Virginia court records might provide more insight).

1830 Census, Elenor Hickenbottom

Click on the image to enlarge it. 

If you inspect the highlighted areas in this image, you’ll see that the only females in Gideon Hickenbottom’s household are white (the facing page included no checks in this row).  Since this was the only record I could find of Elenor, I spot-checked her children in various census records over the years and failed to find them listed as anything but white.

Does this mean that there’s something fishy in the family lore?  Not necessarily.  We all know that census records are riddled with errors, and my cursory surfing session could have missed a telling clue somewhere.  But it certainly suggests a possible, alternative explanation why Ms. Skloot’s results revealed no African heritage.  Maybe there was none.  Or maybe the story had become distorted over time and the ancestor in question was actually Native American.  Or maybe Elenor was only partly African.  Or maybe the African genetic echoes were just too distant to show in Ms. Skloot’s results.  Or maybe, in the random genetic shuffle that contributes to each birth event, Rebecca and her grandfather hadn’t received any input from Elenor.  Any of these explanations is as likely as the conclusion that genetic genealogy is more hype than reality.

Bottom Line
As it happens, I agree with Ms. Skloot that genetic genealogy is sometimes oversold.  I worry about this because I fear a backlash against genetealogy down the road.  But my experience is that the media is responsible for much of the hype.  Genetealogy is a hot topic and I have personally coached more journalists and producers than I can remember on the ABCs of genetealogy – and time and time again, the resulting pieces barely gloss over even the fundamentals and leave the reader or viewer with the impression that these tests are one-size-fits-all, silver bullets.

I understand how this happens.  Tons of research has to be distilled down to 1,000 words or 90 seconds, so there’s no room to explain, for example, that an mtDNA test only applies to your direct maternal line – your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother . . .  I sympathize with those who have to whip together these articles or segments under impossible deadlines.  But the end result is customers with unrealistic expectations.   I’m not saying that no testing company has ever contributed to this situation, but it’s unfair to hold them solely responsible.

Just as there are people who think they can simply google their name and have their whole family tree magically appear on the internet, there are those who believe the same of genetic genealogy – that one test can reveal all the mysteries of their heritage.  Neither is true, of course.  You actually have to master some fundamentals, decide what you want to learn, and pick an appropriate course of action.  I’d just like to see a little more effort devoted to helping “newbies” grasp the basics and a little less emphasis on blame-the-seller pieces dismissing the value of genetic genealogy.  As I wrote in Trace Your Roots with DNA back in 2004, “Genetealogy is still in its infancy and those of us who are already practicing it have made our peace with the inevitable learning curve and growing pains associated with being a bit of a pioneer.  Focusing only on the limitations is a sure prescription for failure, so why not play with the technology to determine what can be understood now and how to stretch the boundaries of its possible future application?”

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, co-author (with Ann Turner) of Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree (as well as In Search of Our Ancestors, Honoring Our Ancestors and They Came to America), can be contacted through www.megansrootsworld.blogspot.com/, www.genetealogy.com and www.honoringourancestors.com. 

Upcoming Events Where Megan Will Be Speaking
— Oaklyn Memorial Library
(June 29, 2006, Oaklyn, NJ)
— Roots in the Boot
(July 15, 2006, Pittsburgh, PA)
— Tidewater Genealogical Society
(August 5, 2006, Newport News, VA)

Details and links to upcoming events

10 thoughts on “Honoring Our Ancestors: Is Genetic Genealogy Being Oversold? by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

  1. Frankly, no serious person involved in using DNA testing for genealogical purposes would resort to it unless they had a good reason to do so (a brick wall for instance, as in my case) and also understood its limitations. I have researched my family tree for 5 years, much of that spending a 2-3 hours a week reviewing microfilm of 19th century records. I have found everything I could in the records about my great-grandfather, born about 1845 in Sicily, which is not much. Both his birth and marriage records are not in either the microfilmed records or the archives of the town where he lived. I have confirmed this by hiring a researcher in Sicily to search the town’s record archives. My grandfather’s birth record gives the one clue from the records that confirms the family story that my great-grandfather was abandoned as an infant. My grandfather’s birth record refers to his father as “of unknown parents, also known as Maddi.” So what am I to do? Well, I have two choices. I can just say it’s a brick wall that will never come down and I accept that. Or I can use the technology of DNA testing to attempt to knock down that brick wall. Being someone who loves the aspect of genealogy research that involves solving a mystery, I choose to use DNA testing, once the paper trail is no longer there.

    And I do realize that as long as someone with whom I share an ancestor hasn’t been tested and placed his results in a public database, I won’t find the answer. It’s even possible that I may never find the answer during my lifetime. But maybe someday that match will show up and a descendant who is from my paternal line will be happy I didn’t give up the search. In the meantime, I am the co-administrator of the Sicily Project at Family Tree DNA and try to encourage others with Sicilian ancesetors to test and join our project. That potentially helps me find a match sooner and also contributes to knowledge about Sicily’s genetic heritage, which of course has nothing to do directly with any one person’s family tree. I believe that is a worthwhile goal with its own merits.

    Many of the traditional genealogists object to genetic genealogy because they want to believe that the records are totally accurate and don’t want their records research overturned by a surprising result in a genetic genealogy surname project. As far as the reliability of records, I’ll relate a couple of examples that indicate that they are not always reliable. I can tell you that I have seen my great-grandmother’s surname spelled several different ways over the course of a dozen or so years on the birth records of her children. This is all in the same town. She was born in another town, so the record-keepers in this town were not familiar with her surname and just guessed at the spelling. The only way I was able to arrive at the correct spelling of her surname was to research the town where she was married (different from where most of her children were born) and see what her marriage record had. Then I researched the records of the town of her birth (still another town) and confirmed that the surname on her marriage record was correct. Suppose I hadn’t done this – if I had flipped a coin and chosen the surname given on one of her children’s birth records, I’d probably have gotten it wrong. I also have a case where I had the wrong woman as my gg-grandmother because she shared the same given name and surname as my actual gg-grandmother. I compounded this error by then putting the wrong woman’s parents into my family tree. Only when it was pointed out to me by a fellow researcher with ancestors from this town that I had the wrong Giuseppa Cannizzaro as the grandmother of my paternal grandmother, did I find the right marriage record and correct my error. I could give a couple of more examples of ambiguity or just plain error in the official records, but I think I’ve made my point.

    Mike Maddi

  2. The criticism “gentealogy is oversold” has an implicit assumption–too much money is being spent on it. Having done ordinary genealogy for a while, I can no longer count the number of times someone has posted a poem or such about ordinary genealogy which says “THE HOBBY ISN”T CHEAP”. Therefore, if someone wishes to allege gentealogy is oversold, it behooves them to put it in a monetary perspective. It may in fact be true that part of the expense in genealogy can be written off in asmuch as it is forcing oneself to take a trip to GB or to the Riviera etc–expenses for which there is no commensurate write-off for gentealogy. Still genealogy is expensive.

  3. While a great many people see genetic genealogy as a means of breaking through brick walls, it is also invaluable in confirming documentation which we have spent many long hard years accumulating. My direct paternal line has been one of the most difficult lines of my pedigree to decipher. After more than two decades of research & some recent discoveries using the most traditional painstaking records research methods, I believed that I had a good idea of the identity of my direct paternal ancestor six generations removed. About 18 months ago a lady who appeared to be a distant relative along that line of descent contacted me in connection with some info that I had posted on Rootsweb years ago. I had just been tested Y chromosome tested, just out of curiousity, & “just because”. She contacted a male cousin & another distant Tagert cousin, & I contacted another “distant” Tagert cousin & these three gentleman all eventually tested as well. The results, of course, confirmed “beyond the shadow of doubt” what the paper trail suggested – that we are all descendants of a frontier JP & legislator who appeared in the records of the Cumberland River settlements of Middle Tennessee in the late 18th century. There were no longer any memories in any branch of our family of this man, though we now know that he has had hundreds of descendants since his passage. All Tagerts in a wide swath of the South are his descendants. So genetic testing didn’t solve any mysteries for us, but it did open up a new one – how was it that we forgot our progenitor & patriarch in just 5-6 generations?

    Like Mr. Maddi, I believe that what I have done in taking the test & publilshing the results is far more important than leaving a will or a tombstone. I have left a record that will stand the test of time. So long as that record exists in a database (& that is a big contingency), I have left a record that future descendants will always be able to check to verify their pedigree. DNA testing is 100% about the databases, & a lot of us are publishing our results in databases far & wide, for just that reason. DNA changes very, very slowly & future generations will be able to look back at these records for centuries to come. Let’s just hope & pray that there is someone in that future who has some reason to look back & wonder where they came from. That’s the best reason for genealogy – genetic or traditional. Like soup & sandwich, you can’t have one without the other.

  4. ‘but they simply can’t tell you anything definitive about your heredity unless you’re testing your DNA and comparing it to someone else’s to find out if you’re related.”’Rebecca Skloot

    I beg to differ with Ms Skloot on this point also. I was raised on Eng, Irish, Scots and German with Cherokee ggrandmother on my mother’s side. HOWEVER, I don’t look anglo. I grew up in California in the 40s and 50s, and everybody, including the guys I was dating in the 60s, assumed that I was Jewish. Nevermind that I had an evangelist aunt and went to church regularly. I was just a little too dark. My mother was darker and said she had the same problem. She started the geneaology search, looking for her mother’s people because her mother, grandmother, grandfather and aunt had died of TB before she was 10 and she lost all contact.
    A few years ago I took up the search with the benefit of the net and found all of ggrandpa’s lines, but no luck beyond 1827 and my gggrandmother’s marriage. All white, all Brit names. Comes along DNA. Fed up, I ordered mtDNA and got H3…Iberian Penn. No Cherokee there! Then had the Y done and as a result we have so far three new lines in the family and much more history, way back on my dad’s line. what about the mix in the middle? Finally had the whole thing read and found 2% NA. 3% sub-Saharan African. Good thing mother never knew. But the Euro part answered the questions. 24% SE Euro:Anatolian, and 36% Middle Eastern. I may never know who was who, or who was first, or where exactly they coame from or why, but I know it was on both sides of the family and that being there from the 1600s, they probably were fleeing the Inquisition. I know why I am more at home in the Asian community than I have ever been anywhere, and why Persians speak Farsi to me without question,and why I am so at home in the Somali community. I also know that I probably have FMF instead of Lupus, and that my daughter is at risk. Maybe it explains my anti-racist beliefs and actions from childhood, and my recognition of Islam from first contact 50 years ago. University of Wisc is doing research on the source of savants coming from genetic memory. If one accepts the principle of genetic memory, this idea is not so far fetched.
    Because I live in GB and my friends are like a UN meeting, and they all know about this, you would be amazed at the people who would like to do this testing, even though they have no ‘proper’ paper trails, just to find out where all the ancestors came from.
    DNA testing, especially this kind, broadens the field. It tells us that we really are all related, and places us in perspective with the history of civilisation. Hopefully, it broadens the horizons and idea that if you are human, you are probably family and maybe we should talk instead of fighting.
    I know that some ‘relatives’ refused to let my mother have access to DAR records in the 60s because she had proof that something in their records that she did have access to was wrong. That kind of thing will always be an issue, but in my humble opinion, the greater immplications of DNA testing and the building of data banks over time, will be as important as the coming of the printing press or the internet. It will eventually change how the world thinks of itself and its history, and with luck that will make the world a better place in which to live.

  5. I have no male living to test DNA can I “female” be tested. And get a DNA report. My Step Grandmother told me years ago there was a Native American married to one of the Faulkner’s however, she did not know which one or what her name was. At one time there was a tintype photo of her. However my nephew or neice, My sister’s adopted children wound up with the photo.
    I do have a male cousin who is grandchild of a Faulkner. Couldd he be tested to get the y factor information?

    Louise Faulkner Wesberry

  6. Louise F. Wesberry:
    Since the native american married into your family was a female
    a Y test would not turn anything up because the Y’s only come from men. You might try the Test for women.

  7. My husband has no living male to test DNA on his Grandmother side. And do to county court house being destoryed twice no early records are available. Hopefully some day my husband will be able to be tested and determine what line of Stricklin/Stricklans his Grandmother came from :-(

  8. My father, Fred Fawcett, occupation fisherman, was from Metlakatla and 100% Timshian Tribe. My father is deceased. I’m his only child. How accurate is aunt or uncle to niece DNA testing or 1st cousin to 1st cousin. My cousin’s father was my father’s brother. We look quite a bit alike. But I have heard different theories.

  9. Although my family name continues along the lines of my grandfathers mother because he was brought up by his grandparents as their youngest child. His father was always referred to as old man Marshall and I was given to understand his father was a John Marshall. I have postcards sent to him signed your father John however these may have been from his maternal grandfather. Two of my fathers sisters told me in the past that our surname should really be Marshall. Although another relative by marriage said it was something different. As their is only one male descendent of my grandfathers my brother if I paid for him to have a DNA test should it be done under the surname of Marshall my greatgrandmothers surname or surname unknown?

  10. Pingback: GenealogyLocator Blog » DNA Genealogy Oversold

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