Published March 21, 2017

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In courtrooms across the country, they call it the “CSI effect,” after the popular “Crime Scene Investigation” franchise of TV shows that create the impression that for every crime there is scads of forensic evidence waiting to be analyzed by cutting-edge scientific tools.

In the family history world, it’s the “DNA effect” and it shows up in discussions amongst professionals and hobbyists alike. The idea becoming common in these discussions is that DNA tests are a necessary part of any sound genealogical conclusion.

First a very quick review of DNA testing as it applies to genealogy.

For more than a decade, there’s been Y chromosome testing that can show whether two men are related in an unbroken male line and mitochrondrial DNA that comes from an unbroken maternal line.

In the last five years or so, autosomal DNA tests that give suggestions on how close two individuals might be related (and which therefore can be terrific “brick wall” removers when used with traditional paper documents) have come into vogue.

The autosomal tests have, in turn, led to powerful tools to ferret out missing cousins.

My opinion – as someone who knows only enough about DNA and genealogy to be very dangerous! – is that a time will come in the not too distant future when DNA testing will be inexpensive enough that cost will not be a barrier and that relatively few people will have qualms about testing.

That time, however, it not quite now. Testing each individual in a project usually still requires an investment of $100 or so.

And there are still a significant number of people who do not wish to share their DNA – especially those with concerns for their privacy (can you believe some people just don’t want to be bothered by “nutty” genealogists?) or related fears that they could be exposed to law enforcement problems or medical discrimination.

However, prices have already declined substantially and I believe they will get even cheaper.

While some people will continue to fight giving up a swab of DNA because of privacy or discrimination concerns, I think most people will eventually take the view that I do – that any sense of privacy in the 21st century world is mostly illusion and that the less you let it worry you, the better.

And nearly every client of a professional genealogist, however, will likely be game to have their DNA compared against a commercial database or two.

Although it strikes me that there always will be a place for the sheer beauty of documents relating to pedigrees from bygone days, the changes made by DNA showing the correct biological descent will give us all a more complete sense of our family history.

2 Comments

  1. Rick Bender

    6 months ago  

    Well, going all the way back to my first reply many years ago (regarding Ancestry.com): it’s another tool and if we use it properly it might prove helpful!
    My ancestors were Pennsylvania Germans but I live in New Mexico. I can’t just jump in the car after work and stop by the local historical society to browse their collections. I use online sources a lot; and now, I am also adding in DNA results. But my research is always by fits and starts, partly because I’m lazy and easily distracted; sometimes because I run out of ideas; and sometimes, because it’s the nature of the beast itself (DNA for example: I can’t test for SNPs for which there are not yet any tests available).
    I tested with Family Tree for Y-DNA many years ago, and have since purchased numerous follow-up SNP tests;
    I also did the mt-DNA with Family Tree. I’ve gotten some interesting hints but nothing terrifically specific. I’ve joined a couple of projects but so far nothing definitive has turned up. (In fact, I don’t seem to fit in anywhere! I’d been grouped with a gang of misfits — about two dozen of us with minimal matching markers — but have since been cast out (as a result of those follow-up SNPs), so that now, I fear, I am an orphan among the family DNA projects!
    I recently found a possible cousin in Massachusetts; that “cousin” had already tested through Ancestry.com. Then I found another possible cousin who is a known descendant of Valentine Bender (my most-likely ancestor) and who has also tested via Ancestry.com. I had ordered an Ancestry kit myself in 2013 but hadn’t submitted it pending further comments from my family members (I’m always troubled some by the fact that I am submitting “their” DNA too). I now await the results from Ancestry.com.
    My Family Tree SNPs indicate a strong Anglo-Saxon background. A trusted researcher tells me he believes my SNPs are pre-emigration to England, so I’m looking at ancestors in Saxony or Freesia maybe 1500 years ago, if I understand it.
    The Massachusetts and “Val”-descendant “cousins” each have sizable Anglo-Saxon origins, for whatever it’s worth. (For all I know, maybe all descendant Lebanon Countians have strong Anglo-Saxon histories!)
    The DNA research is puzzling sometimes, even surprising occasionally, but then, so is the paper trail. (And the newspapers! Talk about surprises.)
    Anyway, it’s fun. Keeps me out of the bars. (Doesn’t stop me from drinking though.) (Moderately, of course.)
    — Rick


  2. Lois Smith

    6 months ago  

    My sentiments exactly, Cousin! I’m putting off the DNA testing until the price comes down some more. And you’re right about privacy today being mostly illusion…so much can be discovered online with a few clicks of the mouse or slides of your finger across the screen! And those who continue to resist the testing are probably people who have something to hide…