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The other side of the coin

Just yesterday, at the spring seminar of the New Hampshire Society of Genealogists, The Legal Genealogist stood before a group of enthusiasts and reminded everyone in the room (the speaker included) that DNA — as a research tool — has limitations.

DNA heartThe one point I try to stress, each and every time I talk about using DNA testing, is this: DNA can tell us how we are biologically related to each other. DNA doesn’t — and can’t — tell us how families are formed.

Think for example of the case where DNA proves that this child is not the biological child of this man. That’s a common scenario, whether it’s a relationship today or (as in the case of Richard III and the questions DNA has raised about his paternity1) a relationship in the far distant past.

And think about what DNA does not and cannot ever tell us: whether that child loved that man, and that man loved and cherished and guided and raised that child. It may have been the child of his wife by her first husband. Or the child of his wife’s sister. Or a child taken in to the family when no-one else would or could. But the only the bonds of biology can be tested through DNA; the bonds of the heart don’t show up in our genetic code.

This point was stressed, in Alva Noë’s post DNA, Genealogy And The Search For Who We Are, on NPR’s blog back in January, where he pointed out that:

family and family history are one thing, and DNA-based ancestry is another. You just can’t map these beautiful, defining, important family stories onto a DNA tree. … (Y)ou literally can’t. DNA draws the boundaries in the wrong place.2

And, he went on:

As a culture, we like simple solutions. And the idea that who, and what, we really are is written in the language of the genome, that it is inside us — and that we need only send away to have it decoded — is almost irresistible. But to judge by the example of (Henry Louis) Gates’ television show (Finding Your Roots), the stories that matter, the ones that bring his guests and his viewers to tears, are sagas of marriage and migration, of childrearing, hard work and love. It is family that matters — and family is relationship, not DNA. Family is not to be found inside us. The DNA story is a good one, and no doubt important for certain purposes, e.g., medical. But when what we want to know is who we are, it won’t deliver the answers.3

Noë then urged his readers to listen to a presentation by Professor Mark Thomas of University College London on the topic at the Who Do You Think You Are Live conference in Birmingham, England, last year. It’s worth lending an ear to Thomas, even though he focuses almost entirely on the limits of YDNA and mtDNA in determining ancestral origins, not taking much into account from the newer autosomal DNA tests.

But when we review what Thomas says — when we think about what’s written in our genetic code — and above all when we set out to use DNA in our research, the bottom line we have to keep in mind as genealogists (rather than as geneticists) is this: families are more than blood or DNA.

That stepfather and stepson are family every bit as much as two related by biology — and in far more important ways than biology alone suggests.

Let’s not forget the relationships of the heart even as we enthusiastically learn more about the relationships of the genome.


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Case closed … and another opened,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 3 Dec 2014 ( : accessed 15 May 2016).
  2. Alva Noë, “DNA, Genealogy And The Search For Who We Are,” Cosmos & Culture: Commentary on Science and Society, NPR, posted 29 January 2016 ( : accessed 15 May 2016).
  3. Ibid.
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