Starting the New Year off right
So here we are on the last Sunday — and last day! — of 2017, and it’s time again for The Legal Genealogist to stop for a minute and take stock on the DNA side of genealogy.
It’s the perfect time to stop, and think, and look back and ask myself: What am I doing right, what am I doing wrong, and what could I be doing better in 2018?
And judging from reader comments and complaints, there were loads of New Year’s Resolutions we all made back in January 2017 to make ourselves better at understanding and using DNA properly as part of our genealogical research — and then promptly broke. And I’m surely not excusing myself on this score… sigh…1
Part of the problem, of course, is that things are changing so fast on the DNA front that it’s hard to even catch up, much less keep up, with developments: new tools, new testing companies, new ethical conundrums and more.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to try our best.
So — taking stock — I’ll give myself a basic pass on education, since I’ve taken two institute courses and listened to a whole raft of presentations and webinars on DNA in the last three years. In some ways, I think what that’s brought me is a deeper understanding of the complexities of DNA. Doesn’t mean I can’t do better, but at least I’m not losing ground there. I think.
And I’ve done a pretty decent job, I think, of integrating DNA analysis into my research plans. Whenever I’m looking at a relationship question in my own research, I now automatically think about how DNA could be used to help develop the proofs — even if, in the final analysis, it isn’t useful or available in a particular case. So I’ll give myself a pass on research integration.
I do need to do better in 2018, through blog posts and other research efforts, to distinguish between and among the testing companies. I really didn’t feel that I could do a new Bang-for-the-Buck post any time during 2017 because things were changing so fast. I’m hoping they’ve stabilized enough for now that I can at least give it a try early in the New Year. So I’ll give myself a “needs improvement” on researching the companies.
And … sigh … no matter how far I might think I’ve come, I still have three big areas where I need to do better. These haven’t changed one bit from last year.
So… in the hopes that at least this genetic genealogist will do better in the year to come, here are my suggestions for three critical resolutions we can all make that would benefit us all as genetic genealogists.
Resolution Number 3:
I will do my paper trail genealogical homework.
I get it. I really do. I understand only too well how much we all want DNA testing to be the magic bullet. Just take this test, click on that little icon2 and — presto! — all of our genealogical brick walls will come tumbling down.
It’d be wonderful!
It’d be amazing!
And it’d be fantasy, not reality.
At least so far, in the real world, DNA testing just doesn’t work that way. Perhaps the most important lesson I had reinforced in 2017 was that DNA alone can never be enough to prove a genealogical relationship. There’s got to be at least one more piece of information to be able to properly interpret the DNA evidence you get.3
As much as I’d love to wave the magic DNA wand and get the answers to all my genealogical questions, the reality is that DNA testing is just one more type of evidence that has to be used in conjunction with — alongside — hand-in-hand with all the other types of evidence we collect along the paper trail. It’s something we use with our other tools, not instead of our other tools.
I need — we all have to have — the documentary evidence to put DNA evidence into its proper place.
So I resolve to do my paper-trail homework.
Resolution Number 2:
I will take ethnicity estimates not merely with a grain of salt but with the whole darned salt lick.4
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 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.5 And frankly, the term I’d be more inclined to use these days is WAGs — a lovely American acronym that means “wild-assed guesses.”6
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.
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 2017? How many of us will have to bid farewell to someone we love in 2018? How many of us ourselves will not be here to ring in the New Year of 2019?
Particularly when it comes to autosomal DNA — the kind we inherit from both parents that changes and mixes and recombines from generation to generation8 — 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 2018 — as it was in every year before — has to be not to lose that genetic legacy. Let’s get our oldest generations tested.
- See Judy G. Russell, “DNA resolutions for 2016,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 3 Jan 2016, and “DNA Resolutions for 2017,” posted 1 Jan 2017 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 30 Dec 2017). ↩
- A little shaky leaf, perhaps… ↩
- See Judy G. Russell, “DNA doesn’t lie!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 1 Oct 2017 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 30 Dec 2017). ↩
- 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 30 Dec 2017). Think a grain of salt on steroids. ↩
- Judy G. Russell, “Those pesky percentages,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Oct 2013 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 30 Dec 2017). ↩
- InternetSlang (http://www.internetslang.com : accessed 30 Dec 2017), “WAG.” ↩
- See also Judy G. Russell, “Those percentages,” posted 1 Nov 2015 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 30 Dec 2017). And “Those percentages revisited,” posted 1 May 2016. And “Those percentages, if you must,” posted 14 Aug 2016. ↩
- ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Autosomal DNA,” rev. 5 Dec 2017. ↩