Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, August 8, 2016

Dawn of the New Genealogical Information Age: Part Four -- It's in my DNA
I am hearing an increased number of comments from others about their experiences with DNA testing. However, except for a few prominent genealogical researchers, most of the experiences involve very general findings and result in little benefit to the recipient except to satisfy some curiosity. There is no doubt that genealogical DNA testing is beginning to be an important part of the commercial genealogical community. But the most important question is whether or not wide spread DNA testing has any real benefit.

Taken to its often projected extreme, DNA testing is touted as being able to do away with genealogical research altogether. All you need to do to "find your relatives" is to have a rudimentary family tree online, involve yourself in DNA testing and voila! you have a identified your relatives. The interesting thing about this scenario is that it works in some cases assuming your own relatives have also paid for DNA testing and are found in the same online family tree or trees that you choose to host your particular version of your family.

Among my acquaintances who are urging me to get my DNA tested, some have made rather dramatic discoveries involving the identity of close family relationships. These discoveries involve identifying birth mothers, situations where parental relationships have been modified and other adjustments to their previously held understanding of their family and relatives. Our culture in the United States has for many years assiduously protected the "right of privacy" of the biological birth mother in adoption proceedings. Throughout the U.S., adoption birth records are almost always "sealed" and unavailable without court action. In addition, many adopted parents have avoiding disclosing the fact of a child's adoption even into adulthood and some adopted children have likely died without ever learning of the adopted relationship. In some of these cases and other similar situations, a simple DNA test may open a whole Pandora's box of family issues. This type of revelation can have an unsolicited impact on an entire family. On the other side of the issue, in some cases, the recipients of a DNA test may be relieved to find out they are not related to certain people.

In one case, just yesterday, I had a friend relate the results of a family's DNA testing where the origin of the family had shifted from the Netherlands to the Azores. This type of adjustment in the thinking of an entire family can have some interesting and unforeseen consequences. This can be especially true if the change involves acceptance of an ethnic or racial heritage that has been part of the family's prejudices, such as finding out that the family who prides themselves on their racial and ethnic "purity" are really descendants of the "undesirable" racial group.

Regardless of whether or not you decide to "have your DNA tested," the aggregation of the huge amount of genealogical data derived from the DNA tests will rapidly begin to impact your family.

Let's suppose, as is not only possible but very likely, that the large, online genealogical database companies increase the efficiency and coverage of their automated record hinting processes. Right now, if you put your basic family information in some programs, such as, you are immediately connected to a small cloud of family members. Then, again as is the case with, you are almost immediately further connected with other members of the program who share relatives with you on their family trees. In addition, begins to provide Record Matches that automatically suggest appropriate historical documents that provide information about your family members. You could then augment these initial discoveries by adding in your DNA testing results which would then also be automatically matched to other members of the vast membership around the world. The potential here is that the traditional idea of "doing genealogical research" is turned on its head. The involvement of the user of one of these programs becomes merely a process of evaluating the information supplied.

DNA testing on its own has the potential of strongly indicating that the established and documented family records including certified birth certificates are simply wrong. Again in the United States, in adoption situations, the Court can "create" a birth certificate showing the adopted parents as the "birth" parents of the child. This legal fiction has been justified by the overriding interest in preserving the privacy of the birth mother (and father) and to "protect" the child. The net effect of the powerful information tools now appearing in the genealogical community will be to strip away any semblance of this previously assumed "right to privacy" concerning family relationships. Are you anxious to participate in this process?

This, almost casual, involvement in genealogical "research" is usually viewed as anathema among the dedicated, educated and highly qualified researchers. There is a general view that the results of all this technological mumbo jumbo is unreliable, in many cases inaccurate and very undesirable. As a result, the "high level" genealogical researcher retreats to their enclave of traditional research and digs even further into the "reliable" source records usually back in the 16th or 17th Century. The researchers defend their position with the claims that "without extensive paper research, all of this online family tree stuff is entirely unreliable and worthless."

What about the adopted child who, because of the legal fiction of the courts, believes that the documents do not lie and never suspects his or her adopted relationship? In fact, the explosion of information now becoming available will fundamentally change the way we view "genealogical research." What if I had started with a DNA test, an online family tree and automated record finding technology thirty plus years ago? Would I still be in the same place I am today with the same background in research?

Think about it and stay tuned for the next post in this series.

Here are the earlier posts in this series.

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