Tuesday 5 December 2017


DNA tests have been in the genealogical news often recently. Every company who offers testing seems to have a special price on for the US Thanksgiving and Christmas season. Most blogs I read have posted comments on the tool, encouraging readers to get their DNA evaluated and see if any new cousins pop up.

I have dealt with the subject before (DNA Matches) when I commented on my own experiences. They have been mixed but I still hold out hope that something will come from the Y-DNA results of some family members.

National Geographic of course has added its voice to testing, offering readers a discount on to join its GENO 2.0 project. They indicate over 820,000 people have already taken part. Results of tests are touted to give participants their regional ancestry makeup as far back as 200,000 years, a deep ancestry report showing where ancestors lived and migrated, their hominin ancestry and now historical genius matches. The latter might show which famous geniuses might be relatives.

In the most recent, Christmas issue of Family Tree (UK), there is an article about a DNA project to build a worldwide family tree. (By the way, I have a contribution in that issue as well about Your ancestors and the Little Ice Age which I hope you will read.)

The article starts off with, “An ancestry DNA firm has set up a unique research initiative with universities across the world to create a global family tree based on people’s DNA.” They want to produce a detailed genetic map with their One Family One World project. They have developed lesson plans that span science, geography, history and social studies to show people how we are all connected. Their objectives are interesting and laudable.

In all the discussions about DNA testing there have also been alarms raised about how the information could be used or obtained by groups or agencies that individuals getting tested never anticipated. James Tanner commented on some of the recent news reports in his blog post of 20 November 2017, Is genealogically submitted DNA discoverable in a criminal investigation? Basically he says, don’t worry about it…the rules of evidence likely preclude the likelihood of law enforcement ever getting their hands on the data. I would not be surprised, though, to see life insurance companies trying to find out how you tested in order to assess your health risks better.

Anyway, to get back to the livingdna website, my first reaction to the idea of trying to assemble a world-wide tree was…Why?

I personally doubt that it is possible to find out how all 7.6 billion people in the world today are related or how they came to be where they are. Man…it is hard enough to find all the living members of my own extended family and learn who they are, where they live and what they do.

It may be a laudable exercise to show how everyone is related if we go back far enough, but we basically already know that from anthropological, archeological and geological studies. Is there really a point to finding out how a farmer in a remote location of Qinghai province, China, is connected to a dentist is Pasadena, California. Genealogy has its limits, mostly due to records only going back a few hundred years. Beyond that it’s unreasonable to think we can confirm familial relationships. DNA may tell us something about the story of migration of our particular forebears, but that is likely to be hundreds if not thousands of generations past. Hardly relevant if you are looking for your 3rd great-grandparents!
Early Human migration patterns (retrieved from https://www.thinglink.com/scene/844602605974847489 webpage 5 December 2017)
The livingdna project kind of reminds me of the goals of the FamilySearch Family Tree which is composed of linked trees submitted by some 22 million users. Over the years I have looked at some of the results, for people in my family I know a lot about, and found many instances where information was just plain wrong. One missed tie between individuals means a whole series of branches will be suspect. Not to demean their efforts but multiply a single mistake by millions and you really have to question the usefulness of the whole project.

DNA tests are a great tool to use for finding relatives, mostly those still living. They might, though, offer a different perspective on the family and perhaps even some new names. Using it to go back several generations is of limited value unless you find those living cousins who might have copies of the documents that demonstrate family connections. Past a couple of generations any DNA similarities might well only fall in the margin of error and it won’t be possible to know if it is real.

Believing that you can go back thousands of years to find ancestors is a fairy tale. Migration patterns are an interesting subject but that is information you can get from many scientific studies.

The livingdna program looks very interesting but, outside of educating people about the common origins of humanity, its goals unite mankind in a common tree may be beyond what is really possible. Check it out!