The Tale Wags the Dog
“Stay tuned…there might be a Part Four someday,” I said as I closed my last epistle on the topic of genealogy back in March of 2015. My never-ending quest for family history has moved onward in spurts over the past four years. Back then, I had recently been dabbling in the results of my DNA test results. My expectations at that time were fairly low and I was considering DNA testing to be sort of a novelty. It was a curiosity at first for people who had invested so much time in their paper research. Many of them had traced family lines back through the centuries and they were well informed on their ethnic origins. Or so they thought.
Somewhere along the way, DNA testing took off like a rocket with several different companies pulling in the lion’s share of the market. These days, it is common to have friends who have had DNA tests done and result returned. Some choose to talk about it and some choose to keep it quiet. Some of that is because they may not really know what the report is telling them. The companies use different testing algorithms and procedures and will offer different interpretations of the results. If a set of identical twins are tested by two different companies, they will get different results simply because the companies work differently.
It is a huge market and there is a great deal of money to be made. I tested with 23andme.com mostly to get my ancestry information out of curiosity but that company provides genetic health reports based on one’s genetic makeup. Until I started reading the reports, I never heard of most of those obscure conditions (obscure unless you are afflicted). There are a few I’ve heard of. I just learned that I’m at little or no risk of Familial Mediterranean Fever. I know my risk level for macular degeneration and late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. In most cases, they can’t totally rule out all risk because the research typically doesn’t search out all genetic markers and we also must understand that genetic research is still advancing, and new markers might be discovered in the future.
The most recent twist in the health-related genetic testing research is the partnering of companies like 23andme.com with “Big Pharma” with tremendous profits for both sides. Drug companies would love to access genetic material as a means of developing cures or treatments for various diseases. The genetic testing companies protect individual privacy (we are told) but offer access to the DNA details so drug companies can identify disease markers and the genetics of numbers. Among other things, Big Pharma would want to know how many people have a certain risk and whether it is in their shareholders’ interests to chase a remedy if there are so few with the conditions. There is money to be made if they are selective in their work efforts.
Another recent twist is the use of DNA databanks (GEDmatch, for example) for criminal investigations. These databanks are a treasure trove for cold cases or current crime investigations. If an unknown perpetrator leaves DNA evidence at the scene of the crime, that DNA can be processed by one of the DNA companies to point to close relatives of the perpetrator who are registered with that company. Gedmatch is a good source for this because people who are tested by other companies can upload their DNA results for free to Gedmatch and use various research tools or look for DNA cousins from multiple testing sources. If your first cousin commits a crime and there is DNA evidence left behind you might be an unwitting tool in the investigation if your DNA is on file. This has happened a couple times (that became public) but might be more common in the future. DNA deposited with one of these companies is supposed to be kept secure and private but the exception seems to be criminal investigations. GEDmatch issued the following statement on their web page:
April 28, 2018 While the database was created for genealogical research, it is important that GEDmatch participants understand the possible uses of their DNA, including identification of relatives that have committed crimes or were victims of crimes. If you are concerned about non-genealogical uses of your DNA, you should not upload your DNA to the database and/or you should remove DNA that has already been uploaded. Users may delete their registration/profile and associated DNA and GEDCOM resources. Instructions are available.
I guess removing one’s DNA from the databank would make it invisible in such investigations, but I’m not fully convinced that it is totally gone. Years ago, I worked in Criminal Justice information systems and we were directed to expunge records on some cases but there was always a bit of a shadow left behind on back-up tapes and such. Perhaps modern technology has advanced to totally remove any record. We are supposed to believe that, anyway.
And what about identical twins? If you have an evil twin committing crimes and leaving DNA evidence, will you get hammered if law enforcement finds your DNA in a databank? Identical twins have (nearly?) identical DNA. I’ve seen some reports that say there are ways to find differences but then I’ll find something that says otherwise. Identical twins are the result of a split fertilized egg developing as two separate individuals. I don’t know where the differences in DNA develop.
I personally think that violent criminals need to be caught. If I have a DNA cousin running around raping and pillaging and hurting victims, my DNA might be the clue to stop it, but I have mixed feelings about being unwittingly dragged into the investigation. Would I also have to be called as a witness to explain how my DNA came to be part of the databank? I hope not.
Another issue is children who are adopted finding their birth families. I have a dozen or more adoptees in my DNA cousin list (out of several thousand). I have tried to work with a couple adoptees, but we have not moved any closer to establishing an identifiable link. These adoptees are usually fourth cousins or more distant and I have dozens or hundreds of fourth or fifth cousins…most I have never heard of. Sometimes, lightning strikes and the adoptee finds a close DNA relative and then can work out the details. Sometimes the birthparent finds the adoptee directly through a DNA cousin list. I know of two recent occurrences where the birthparents initiated the contact. In one case, the adoptee was surprised because they didn’t know they were adopted. That opened several family issues and some real repercussions. Many people in the adoptive family kept the secret for decades – took it to the grave in some cases. The other situation has been a bit awkward because the adoptee’s half-siblings went to the same school and lived just a short distance away. They came into contact from time to time but had no idea they were related.
In an extreme case, a man who contributed to a sperm bank decided to have his DNA tested for health and ancestry purposes. He apparently wasn’t thinking about the possible dozens of children that he passed his DNA to without his actual participation or knowledge. He has discovered that he has multiple sons and daughters and they have a mystery parent that maybe mom needs to talk about. Awkward, no? In cases where the contributor didn’t get his own DNA tested, his natural offspring or even his cousins who did are scratching their heads trying to figure out how they are related to these many strangers…half siblings or cousins they never heard of.
DNA Result Confusion
I’m seeing an increased number of comments on various genealogy web forums of people being disappointed in their results. There are more people getting tested and the results don’t synch with what Mom and Dad said. I think the issue partially lies in the randomness of DNA transmission from one generation to another and then to another, and so on. My report showed that I have some Danish DNA specks (says 23andme) but I have no recent Danish ancestry. Through paper research, I found one woman who was born in Denmark in the early 1600s and moved to the Netherlands where she married and had children who later migrated to New Netherlands and settled in the Hudson Valley. That is probably seven generations or more in the past and there is almost no reason to expect that DNA to make it through the generations to me. I made up my mind that the randomness caused a small amount of DNA to tumble down through the generations to find me. My daughter doesn’t have any Danish DNA so it stopped with me. I was the end of the line, but I had something of a template in my mind of where “my people” came from.
As soon as I got comfortable with my explanation, that Danish DNA disappeared when 23andme updated their report. These companies will update reports as more people are tested or they gain access to another DNA source. In my case, my Danish and Balkan DNA traces disappeared and were replaced by Portuguese and Spanish DNA. I have no clue where that came from and no ancestry that leads back to the Iberian Peninsula. I’m having a hard time rationalizing that reported finding. I have a bunch of remote ancestors from the Netherlands and Spain, under the Hapsburgs, occupied the Netherlands in the 1500s so some Iberian DNA might have crept into the family tree back in those dark days. Who knows?
My recent update stirred up my DNA pot quite a bit. The report became more precise and now points to the actual locales or provinces where my ancestors likely lived. The Eastern European DNA that I thought was most likely from the Baltic coast of Poland near Gdansk is really from Warsaw and provinces adjacent to modern-day Ukraine. I am now more German and French than Irish and British. I know what German and French provinces my ancestors came from and some of that makes sense, but some don’t. My more precise Irish report closely resembles what I already know. My precise British report is all over the map but might make some sense – I don’t have much information on my English ancestors because they are very ancient and go back to the Plantagenets and before and don’t make up a large branch of my tree.
As an “owner” of one’s DNA data, it is possible to submit the raw data to other companies and get a second or third opinion on ancestral origins. I did that with Myheritage and with GEDmatch. Different companies use different methods and have drawn up the map of the world in different ways. Don’t expect the reports from different companies to be the same across the different methodologies. Myheritage provided an ancestry report that was laughable and made no sense at all. They also assigned something like 4,000 DNA relatives but the bulk of those was a very low likelihood of being a real connection. I did find a couple close cousins but also many “cousins” from Finland. GEDmatch goes off in a different direction and offers so many ways to slice and dice your results that you can mess with the tools until you find something that “fits” what you expect. You will have another list of hundreds of DNA relatives there.
This past year my daughter wanted to get a second test so we both tested with Ancestry. The results were quite close to what we expected them to be. Perhaps the closest match. Ancestry also has a huge databank of genealogical research and is a major repository of family trees. The DNA cousins they identify will often have a family tree that helps track the connection.
An interesting twist to the DNA search popularity is the rise of specialized cousin matching sites (on Facebook). I joined one site for Ireland and another for County Kerry and County Cork. These Facebook sites and the entire concept is tied to the DNA data on file at GEDmatch. The sites have a matching tool that mines the huge GEDmatch data collection that you supply to the Facebook site and finds other people searching the same geographic area to find close matches People only join the Facebook site if they are searching in that specific region. That information is not available from GEDmatch alone.
All this DNA information and the various reports are interesting but I’m hard-pressed to point to any singular genealogical breakthrough that came out of it. It is helpful to know some of the health information. The field is still new and changing as more people are tested so one’s ancestry is still a moving target. Things are improving but not exactly stabilized yet and the multitude of companies adds some confusion. There is no standardization. The unintended consequences of testing regarding the privacy and security of the data might keep people from testing in the first place.
Back to Basics with a Boost
I keep plugging away at the basic research and I’m making more progress that way than I am with DNA test results. I have discovered that the thousands of DNA cousins I have access to are a valuable tool for giving hints and pointers for basic research. I have 150 “cousins” who report the surname “Foley” in their ancestry surnames or in their attached family trees. I have yet to find an ancestor with that surname, but I’ll bet that there is one out there waiting to be found. The same is true with maybe a dozen other names. In some instances, you can search the cousin list by a location or region and find a cluster of “cousins” with family tree ancestors that come from a certain place. That is helpful and is tied to DNA-based relationships.
I subscribed to Ancestry in order to use their resource collection. Years ago, we had to go to libraries or look at borrowed microfilm or microfiche at the local LDS facility. Now much of that, plus a lot more, is available online. Ancestry is one of several and just happens to be the one I use. The others are probably much the same. Family Search is a free site managed by the LDS church and it has census records and other basic information. There is an Irish genealogical website that has parish records. Other countries have similar archive sites, but the language problem will slow people down unless they can translate on the fly.
I recently found a probate record with a will that identifies my ancestor as an heir. That link took me back through a bunch of New England families and generations to the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock. My distant Pilgrim ancestor, a little girl at the time, was the first female to step off the ship at Plymouth Rock. Hold your applause because I don’t need it – that little fact and a couple dollars will get me a small coffee at Starbucks.
There are a few helpful newspaper archives available online and I have been successful in finding information on several family lines. My great uncles were, indeed, gang members and thugs in the Irish gangs of St. Louis. They would assault people on the street and were political enforcers who would keep people from voting if they were not going to vote the “right way”. One newspaper discovery provided an important confirmation of a relationship among four families in three different communities. They all came to one grandchild’s baptism and the newspaper recorded the occasion and the relationships. The only problem was that the newspaper (from Gasconade County, Missouri) was in German and used an old German Fraktur type font. It took me a day to translate it and even then, I didn’t get all of it right until I had an expert look at it.
Doing Ancestry searches on specific people provides details of their life but also reveals other people who are searching for the same family. Trolling through these related family trees will sometimes yield a helpful clue but many times it can be wrong. My advice is that if you find a glaring mistake in somebody else’s family tree to keep it to yourself unless you want your head cut off. I learned that lesson the hard way but escaped with my head. Always be aware that these family trees are a work in progress and subject to revision. Look at the clues but do your own research to confirm the correctness of the information.
For the most part, this is only a hobby and people need to keep it in perspective. The DNA testing angle is an interesting wrinkle, but it has its shortcomings. There are people who are deeply disappointed in the results. Maybe Grampa always said he was an Indian but (uh-oh) it doesn’t show up in the report. Chances are that Grampa wasn’t an Indian. Those NPEs (Non-Parental Events) also pop up and cause family heartburn sometimes. Basic, old fashioned genealogical research is also burdened with pitfalls and myths about Indians or whatever. I have a line that supposedly goes back through England to Normandy (with a convenient side branch to Charlemagne) and then to Vikings and finally to a mythical fifth-century Viking Sea King. I can imagine him standing on the prow of his ship guiding a small fleet toward land to raid some unsuspecting little coastal village. That’s a fun story to tell but that’s all it is. Meanwhile, I also found ancestors who were investors bankrolling the English slave trade. That kind of story is not so much fun, and will sometimes quietly disappear. Unfortunately, we can’t pick our ancestors.
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