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Starting the New Year off right

So here we are on the first Sunday of 2015, and The Legal Genealogist stops to take stock on the DNA side of genealogy. What am I doing right, what am I doing wrong, and what could I be doing better in 2015?

And judging from reader comments and complaints, there are five New Year’s Resolutions we can all make that would benefit us all as genetic genealogists.

Resolution Number 5:

I will not send bulk emails to every single solitary person I match insisting that they “tell me how we’re related.”

It’s probably the single biggest complaint I see from people trying to get a handle on their DNA results — to understand the various tests and what they mean: that they get inundated by emails from people who haven’t done their homework about their own tests or even their own families and who now want you to tell them exactly how the two of you are related.

New Year's ResolutionOh, and send the documentation.

Free.

And, of course, the email is sent to every single solitary person who even remotely matches the sender, with all of the email addresses included, and somebody who doesn’t understand what’s about to happen goes ahead and writes a “why are you sending me this” email — and hits Reply All.

Not the way to make friends and influence people.

Yes, I resolve to do as good a job as I can of contacting my matches in 2015, but let’s all be smart about those contacts:

Prioritize the contacts. Go after the immediate and close relatives first. Nail down the second and third cousins, even as many fourth cousins as possible, before starting on the speculative or distant cousins.

Contact cousins one by one. You owe it to your cousins, and to yourself, to get to know them and to work with them one at a time. It’ll help you keep your research straight. It’ll protect your privacy and theirs. It avoids email flame wars and those appalling Reply All emails that always seem to end with the one person you really do need to hear from taking herself out of the conversation out of frustration.

Don’t ask unless you’ll share. Nothing will turn a cousin contact more sour more quickly than asking for information when you’re not willing to share your own. Want to see my family tree? Show me yours. Which leads into the next point…

Prepare files to share. A six-generation chart of your ancestors is an absolute minimum. You can download a form that you can type your data into from the Mid-Continental Public Library. Even better, find out how to use your genealogy program to produce an ahnentafel report — the kind of genealogy report that starts with you, then adds your parents, then adds their parents and so forth back through the generations1 — and make sure you include where your people lived, not just what their names were.

Resolution Number 4:

I will take ethnicity estimates not merely with a grain of salt but with the whole darned salt lick.2

If I had a nickel for every question I get about these blasted ethnicity estimates, I’d be rich. Filthy rich even. “Why does AncestryDNA say I’m 31% Scandinavian when I have no known Scandinavian ancestors at all?” “Why doesn’t the test show Native American when my great great great grandmother was Lakota Sioux?” “Why are my ethnicity results different from my sister’s?”

Folks, seriously, they’re called estimates for a reason. The term I’ve used before is cocktail party conversation pieces.3 And frankly, the term I’d be more inclined to use these days is WAGs — a lovely American acronym that means “wild-assed guesses.”4

Understand that what these estimates do is take the DNA of living people — us, the test takers — and they compare it to the DNA of other living people — people whose parents and grandparents and, sometimes, even great grandparents all come from one geographic area. Then they try to extrapolate backwards into time to estimate (or guess) what the population of, say, Ireland or Egypt looked like 500 or 1,000 years ago. Nobody is out there running around, digging up 500- or 1,000-year-old bones, extracting DNA for us to compare our own DNA to.

Please… read up on the limits of ethnicity estimates. And then put that aside in favor of all the things DNA tests really can do for genealogy.

Resolution Number 3:

I will try to be patient and understanding when my matches don’t get back to me as quickly as I might like … or at all.

This one is my personal hot-button item because patience is not my long suit. I’m one of the people who prays for patience and ends the prayer with: “And I want it right now!! And I still struggle with the notion that somebody would pay for a genetic genealogy test and then not want to share information about the genealogy we both share.

This is particularly acute for me since I have two matches out there on 23andMe right now that are absolutely driving me wild: a second-cousin-level match from April 2014 and a first-cousin-level match from July — neither of whom has responded to invitations to share information.

So I have to keep reminding myself that there may be very good reasons why a DNA match doesn’t respond to requests for information. The match’s reasons for testing may be very different from my own, and family issues or concerns that person has that I can’t begin to understand. Periodically re-reading Roberta Estes’ powerful post, “No (DNA) Bullying,”5 is a good way to keep grounded here.

And that leads in to a broader resolution overall.

Resolution Number 2:

I will take my ethical obligations as a genetic genealogist seriously.

The simple reality is that tracing our family history — doing genealogy — means exposing family secrets. The child born before the marriage. The prison term. The “loathsome disease.” The time in the asylum. As genealogists we see it all. Adding DNA to the mix of tools we use as genealogists just makes it easier and faster to shine a light on the secrets.

But because it is easier and faster, because it tests living people and doesn’t merely look at records from past generations, it can affect living people. So we need to be mindful of our particular ethical obligations as genealogists in general — and as genetic genealogists in particular.

A great place to start is the National Genealogical Society’s Genealogical Standards and Guidelines, most particularly its “Standards For Sharing Information With Others”. The guidance provided here can keep us on the ethical straight and narrow for all of our genealogical work — and reminds us of our obligations to protect the rights of others as living private individuals.

Resolution Number 1:

I will not delay in getting that older member of the family tested.

Goes without saying, doesn’t it? How many of us bid a sad farewell to a loved one in 2014? How many of us will have to bid farewell to someone we love in 2015? How many of us ourselves will not be here to ring in the New Year of 2016?

Particularly when it comes to autosomal DNA — the kind we inherit from both parents that changes and mixes and recombines from generation to generation6 — DNA is a finite resource. The amount of DNA passed down from an ancestor through autosomal DNA drops dramatically with every generation until, after only a few generations, there may not be enough from that ancestor to be detectable. (Which, by the way, explains a lot of those weird ethnicity estimates, particularly when something you expect to see isn’t in the results.)

With autosomal DNA, then, getting a grandparent to test is better than getting a parent to test, and getting a parent to test is better than testing yourself. Every generation further back that we can test means a more complete database — and more and better matches.

So the number one priority resolution for 2015 has to be not to lose that genetic legacy. Let’s get our oldest generations tested.


SOURCES

  1. See “Ahnentafel,” Encyclopedia of Genealogy (http://www.eogen.com/ : accessed 3 Jan 2015).
  2. City dwellers may not be familiar with salt licks. They are blocks of salt set out for cattle, horses and other animals to lick. It’s a way to get essential minerals into the animals’ diet. “What is a Salt Lick?WiseGeek (http://www.wisegeek.com/ : accessed 3 Jan 2015). Think a grain of salt on steroids.
  3. Judy G. Russell, “Those pesky percentages,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Oct 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 3 Jan 2015).
  4. InternetSlang (http://www.internetslang.com : accessed 3 Jan 2015), “WAG.”
  5. Roberta Estes, “No (DNA) Bullying,” DNAeXplained, posted 15 May 2013 (http://dna-explained.com/ : accessed 3 Jan 2015).
  6. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Autosomal DNA,” rev. 31 Dec 2014.
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