Published February 13, 2018

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There are rarely many days in the week in which I don’t get someone asking me about DNA and genealogy.

In many cases, it’s someone who had taken a DNA test.

Other times, it’s someone thinking about taking a test who learns I’m a genealogist and wants to know my opinion about the state of DNA technology as it relates to family history.

My first thing to stress is that I am not a DNA expert.

When I need clarity of explanation for DNA processes, I go to Diahan Southard (who trades as “Your DNA Guide”) and when I need very detailed information, I have Blaine T. Bettinger’s The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genealogy (he’s “The Genetic Genealogist” and working on a website called “DNA Central” for debut in April).

My second thing is that I believe that DNA has been a huge boon to genealogy with its power suggest cousin relationships that, working in concert with the old-fashioned paper trails of genealogy records, can break through many brick walls.

So my suggestion is definitely for anyone interested in genealogy to test their DNA (and those of relatives, especially older relatives) sooner rather than later.

The caveats that some have put forth with privacy concerns (that DNA contributed to genealogical companies might end up being used by law enforcement or by health insurance companies), while impossible to “prove a negative,” are overblown, in my opinion.

A more real warning for anyone taking a DNA test is the realization in advance that you might find out something about your biological ancestry that you didn’t anticipate or want to know.

The most striking of these possibilities is what’s delicately called a “non-paternity event” or more basically: That your father isn’t your biological father (or a generation further back). Uncovering additional half-siblings is also not uncommon.

But as long as you are going into the test forewarned about the possibility that your “family history” (the people who raised you and the people who raised those people, etc.) and “genealogy” (your biological inheritance) might be different, test away! The potential for breaking down brick walls is a real one!

What’s not so real, on the other hand, are the “ethnicity estimates” that all major DNA testing companies are selling … and that many consumers cite as their reason for testing.

These pie charts showing your supposed heritage from various continents, races and ethnic groups are simply what they say – estimates. They will vary from testing company to testing company since what each does is compare your DNA sample with those of the others in that company’s own database, and often do not account for migrations of population.

The ethnicity estimates make for nice cocktail party chatter but should be taken as approximations only.