AncestryDNA launched its new feature, New Ancestor Discoveries, this week, and the pixels had barely started showing up on our screens before the outcry began.
The theory here is that AncestryDNA can take your DNA and compare it to the DNA of other people in the database and, based on the DNA alone, identify at least some of your ancestors.
AncestryDNA is actually promising just that:
Now with the easy-to-use AncestryDNA test, customers will have the unique ability to find their ancestors, who lived hundreds of years ago, using just their DNA. Only possible through the groundbreaking work of the AncestryDNA science team, New Ancestor Discoveries is a technical innovation that combines the latest in genetic science, new patent-pending algorithms, and access to AncestryDNA’s extensive database to push the boundaries of human genetics, and help people find ancestors from their past using just a DNA test, no genealogy research required.
“This is the biggest advancement in family history since we introduced our Hint feature, the Ancestry shaky leaf, which scours billions of historical records to automatically find new information about your family,” said Tim Sullivan CEO of Ancestry. “Now, through a simple DNA test, AncestryDNA is fundamentally revolutionizing the way to discover your family history, transforming the experience by making it faster and easier to go further into your family’s past, and instantly discover new ancestors you never knew you had.”
New Ancestor Discoveries are revealed through a unique combination of AncestryDNA results and the millions of family trees shared by Ancestry members. First, living cousins of each AncestryDNA member are found and organized into family networks, called DNA Circles, which bring together groups of people who are genetically related to the same ancestor. When a new AncestryDNA customer is connected into that DNA Circle, it’s likely they also share that same ancestor. As a result, it is now possible to simply take the AncestryDNA test and see the name of an ancestor from your family’s past appear in your DNA results.
“It is effectively a shortcut through time — you take the test today and we tell you who your ancestors were, for example, in the 1700s. You don’t need to research records or build a family tree — AncestryDNA now transports you to the past,” said Dr. Ken Chahine, SVP and GM of AncestryDNA. “It’s a combination of three things that allowed us to achieve this breakthrough innovation: 1) millions of family trees created by Ancestry members, 2) the fastest growing genetic database in the world, currently with more than 800,000 genotyped members and 3) a dedicated team of scientists who are pushing the boundaries of genetics and statistics to help people make family history discoveries in ways never before possible.”1
Um… let’s just say not so fast here.
Because what’s really happening here is that you’re being connected to specific “ancestors” by being linked to people who’ve tested with AncestryDNA and who’ve put their family trees online. The end result is that you’re being linked to folks who may or may not be descended from the same people you’re descended from at all. They may be linked to some collateral relatives of yours; they may be related to you in a different line of descent altogether that has nothing to do with the new “ancestor” who’s been “discovered.”
Case after case has already been posted where the new ancestor being discovered isn’t — cannot possibly be — an ancestor at all.2 Some collateral relative, maybe. Ancestor, no.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not jumping on the “go after AncestryDNA with a hatchet” bandwagon here. What AncestryDNA is trying to do is go after what is absolutely the Holy Grail of genetic genealogy: it’s trying to figure out how to identify ancestral lines using using combined DNA and family tree data on a macro scale using the computational power of modern technology.
If we ever could come up with a combination of carefully-analyzed DNA data and carefully-documented paper-trail genealogical evidence, we would have the best of all possible genealogical tools right at our fingertips. At that point, someone who tested and who matched in a scientifically and genealogically validated way to that documented DNA tree might very well discover new ancestors.
As any genealogist who’s ever tried to use DNA in family research can attest, even trying to do this matching of DNA data and genealogical evidence on the micro scale of a single family is not an easy task. It may turn out that, even with the best computers and scientific minds of the 21st century, doing it on the bigger scale isn’t possible.
But we can’t find that out if we don’t start trying.
So I applaud AncestryDNA for trying.
Where I part ways with AncestryDNA is over the hype — those promises made in the advertising quoted above.
Because we don’t yet have a databank of carefully-documented paper-trail genealogical evidence to link DNA results to, the notion that “people (can) find ancestors from their past using just a DNA test, no genealogy research required” or that you “don’t need to research records or build a family tree” is — to put it mildly — simply patently absurd.
Until we have that databank of carefully-documented paper-trail genealogical evidence, even if we were 100% sure of the genetic link between people who’ve tested, we’d still need to confirm the specific line shared with any match by a combination of traditional paper-trail research and DNA triangulation.
Unless we have that databank of carefully-documented paper-trail genealogical evidence, call me still waiting.
- “AncestryDNA Launches Revolutionary New Technology to Power New Ancestor Discoveries: Latest Breakthrough in Consumer Genetics Connects People to Ancestors Dating Back to the 1700s Using Just Their DNA,” News Room, MarketWired.com, posted 2 Apr 2015 (http://www.marketwired.com/ : accessed 4 Apr 2015). ↩
- See e.g. Roberta Estes, “Ancestry Gave Me A New DNA Ancestor – And It’s Wrong,” DNAeXplained, posted 3 Apr 2015 (http://dna-explained.com/ : accessed 4 Apr 2015). Also, Elizabeth Wilson Ballard, “AncestryDNA Has Now Thoroughly Lost Its Mind,” Diggin’ Up Graves, posted 2 Apr 2015 (https://digginupgraves.wordpress.com/ : accessed 4 Apr 2015). ↩