Let me start by putting my bias right out front. In case you donâ€™t already know, Iâ€™m a strong proponent of genetic genealogy (which I like to shorten to genetealogy).Â Iâ€™ve been participating in it since the early days â€“ which is to say, oh, about five-and-a-half years now â€“ and I co-authored a book on the topic.
A Little History
At first, genetealogy was greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism.Â For the first couple of years, it was challenging to get editors and conference organizations to accept articles or lectures about DNA.Â 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!Â Many of us were frustrated, though, when Putting the Gene Back in GenealogyÂ (by Rebecca Skloot) ran.Â Our reaction stemmed from the articleâ€™s critical, almost â€œgotcha!â€ tone, suggesting that testing companies were guilty of overselling genetic genealogy.Â Shortly thereafter, I addressed this in the book I co-authored,Â Trace Your Roots with DNA (p.100), when I wrote:
â€œRegrettably, a few critics have dismissed genetic genealogy as misleading at best (it only represents a small part of an individualâ€™s family tree), and harmful at worst (it could reinforce oversimplified or false notions of race and cause identity problems).Â 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.Â In spite of concerns that we donâ€™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.â€
Genetealogy Marches On
Still, genetealogy cranked on, gathering steam and thousands of additional converts.Â Fast forward to June 2006.Â Rebecca Skloot revisits the topic in her blog with a posting entitled, The Bogus-ness of DNA Testing for Genealogy Research and I experience dÃ©jÃ vu.Â Her remarks include two that catch my attention, starting with:
â€œTheir conclusion and mine: These tests can be fun, and they have some definite use in medical research, but they simply canâ€™t tell you anything definitive about your heredity unless youâ€™re testing your DNA and comparing it to someone elseâ€™s to find out if youâ€™re related.â€
Iâ€™m somewhat perplexed by this because genetic genealogy tests actually donâ€™t reveal anything medically, and as a surveyÂ conducted last year demonstrates, the vast majority of the testing thatâ€™s taking place is being done specifically for the purpose of â€œcomparing it to someone elseâ€™s to find out if youâ€™re related.â€Â This is the norm, not the exception.Â The matchmaking game is the essence of Y-DNA testing, which is, by far, the most popular application.Â Thatâ€™s why there are several databases designed explicitly for this purpose.
A second comment re-ignited my curiosity from the time when the original article appeared.Â According to Ms. Skloot, â€œI had my DNA tested along with the DNA of six of my family members to see if the tests could uncover something youâ€™d never know from looking at me: My great great grandmother was black.â€Â How did she know this?Â She inherited this tale from her grandfather, who in turn, heard it from his aunts, who . . .Â you get the idea.Â A historical game of telephone tag.
DNA testing for Ms. Skloot described her as 10% Native American and 90% European.Â So where, she questioned, was the African ancestry?
Could it be, I wondered, that her family lore was exaggerated or just plain wrong?Â So I devoted about half-an-hour to surfing for her roots.Â As it turns out, the alleged black ancestor (Elenor, wife of Gideon Hickenbottom) was Ms. Sklootâ€™s great-great-great-great-grandmother — thatâ€™s two extra greats, making her of 1/64th African heritage, rather than 1/16th.Â And thatâ€™s assuming this ancestor was 100% African herself.Â So I did a little more digging.
Unfortunately, the only online record that alludes to Elenorâ€™s race is the 1830 census.Â She was born circa 1800-1810 and died circa 1834-1839, and like many women of that era, didnâ€™t leave much of a paper trail (although a close examination of Washington County, Virginia court records might provide more insight).
Click on the image to enlarge it.Â
If you inspect the highlighted areas in this image, youâ€™ll see that the only females in Gideon Hickenbottomâ€™s household are white (the facing page included no checks in this row).Â 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 thereâ€™s something fishy in the family lore?Â Not necessarily.Â We all know that census records are riddled with errors, and my cursory surfing session could have missed a telling clue somewhere.Â But it certainly suggests a possible, alternative explanation why Ms. Sklootâ€™s results revealed no African heritage.Â Maybe there was none.Â Or maybe the story had become distorted over time and the ancestor in question was actually Native American.Â Or maybe Elenor was only partly African.Â Or maybe the African genetic echoes were just too distant to show in Ms. Sklootâ€™s results.Â Or maybe, in the random genetic shuffle that contributes to each birth event, Rebecca and her grandfather hadnâ€™t received any input from Elenor.Â Any of these explanations is as likely as the conclusion that genetic genealogy is more hype than reality.
As it happens, I agree with Ms. Skloot that genetic genealogy is sometimes oversold.Â I worry about this because I fear a backlash against genetealogy down the road.Â But my experience is that the media is responsible for much of the hype.Â Genetealogy is a hot topic and I have personally coached more journalists and producers than I can remember on the ABCs of genetealogy â€“ 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.Â Tons of research has to be distilled down to 1,000 words or 90 seconds, so thereâ€™s no room to explain, for example, that an mtDNA test only applies to your direct maternal line â€“ your motherâ€™s motherâ€™s motherâ€™s mother . . .Â I sympathize with those who have to whip together these articles or segments under impossible deadlines.Â But the end result is customers with unrealistic expectations.Â Â Iâ€™m not saying that no testing company has ever contributed to this situation, but itâ€™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 â€“ that one test can reveal all the mysteries of their heritage.Â Neither is true, of course.Â You actually have to master some fundamentals, decide what you want to learn, and pick an appropriate course of action.Â Iâ€™d just like to see a little more effort devoted to helping â€œnewbiesâ€ grasp the basics and a little less emphasis on blame-the-seller pieces dismissing the value of genetic genealogy.Â As I wrote in Trace Your Roots with DNA back in 2004, â€œGenetealogy 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.Â 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?â€
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.Â
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)