Where does DNA testing fit into the spectrum of genealogy research? The upcoming RootsTech 2014 has 122 class sessions on the schedule. There are nine scheduled classes focused on or mentioning DNA as part of genealogy. But where does DNA testing actually fit into the genealogical research process? Let's suppose that you are an absolute beginner in genealogy. You pay your money to the DNA testing company and send in a swab or whatever for DNA testing. How much of your family history will you know once you have received back the results of the testing? How will what you learn help you find you ancestors?
Let me pose another hypothetical situation. Let's assume that I have been doing genealogical research for a long time and have accumulated a huge, completely documented, completely sourced pedigree back seven or eight generations. I have been diligent and every line goes back to the sixth generation with only a very few missing ancestors in the seventh generation. In looking over my pedigree, I see that the dates of the missing ancestors are in the 1700s, in fact, many of this generation were born in the early 1700s. I note that I have traced every line to the country of origin out side of the Americas. On a whim, I decide to do a DNA test and send in the required swab to a company that advertises that it will provide me with a breakdown of my ethnic percentages. I get back the results and they show that I have possible Native American ancestry. Since I have already documented all of my ancestors to places outside of the American continents, how would this be possible? Or was the test simply wrong?
Am I to suppose that one or more of my ancestors was actually a Native American based solely on this test? Do I go back to my research and try and determine which line could possibly have been Native American? What is the relationship between traditional or online family history research and DNA testing?
Now let's modify the hypothetical. I have done my research and I have documented my pedigree but I get back to the 7th generation and I find that my remote ancestor, John Smith, is one of several Smith's in the same town. In working through each of them, I find that there is one other Smith, William Smith, who might be a relative. My research has been unable to prove which of the other Smiths in that town at that time are related, if any. I do find that another researcher has documented his line back to William, but has also not found out whether our two lines are connected. We decide to do a DNA test. I recruit several of my cousins and the other researcher recruits several of his cousins and we all submit for DNA testing. The test results show that William Smith and John Smith are likely related.
What do I now do with the information I have obtained? That is the real question in all of the hypothetical examples or any other examples that could be given. In my last hypothetical, we now have two very capable genealogists who believe they have a common ancestor. Even with a demonstrable relationship, there may be no further records enabling the researchers to extend the family line to the next generation. Perhaps establishing the relationship could not be done in any other way, but how helpful are the results? Even if you were to posit another hypothetical with the facts that would allow the two researchers to extend the now common line one more generation, the DNA testing alone will never provide that information.
Even if we were to suppose that I had been unable to establish a connection between myself and the hypothetical John Smith and did the DNA test as a guess, the fact that John Smith and William Smith are related and that I am a possible descendant of John Smith, does not necessarily help me fill in the gaps in my research.
In these cases, I am ignoring the motivational aspect of DNA testing. If I do a DNA test and the company tells me I have such and such a percentage of probability of relationship to royalty, where does that get me other than spur me on to do the genealogical research necessary to establish the claimed ancestry? Is it enough to know that a certain percentage of my ancestors came from Scandinavia or do I still have to do the research to establish that connection? The answer to that question is at the heart of the DNA issue.