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

Friday, January 17, 2014

Can DNA Testing Help You Find Your Ancestors? -- Part One

I have changed the wording of a recent blog post from FamilySearch as the title to this post. The original said, "What Can DNA Testing do to Help You Find Your Ancestors?" Since I have some comments on the original article I decided my title was appropriate. 

Right now in the genealogy community, DNA testing is being promoted as a way to determine "your unique ethnic origins." It is also advertised as a way to "connect with new relatives" and that our "family history is in our DNA." For the most part, I have refrained from discussing DNA testing for a number of reasons. Perhaps it is time to begin explaining those reasons with specificity.

DNA testing is not without controversy and detractors. I am not in a position to argue many of the more technical issues, but I can discuss the procedural and historical aspects as they apply to genealogical research as opposed to the medical, forensic and legal uses of DNA. When you enter the realm of DNA claims, I find some of the same problems I find with many popular subjects; an abundance of people and companies who are trying to profit from the procedures. If you talk to an insurance salesman, you will be told you need insurance. If you talk to a real estate agent, you will need a new house. If you talk to a lawyer, you will be told you need legal advice. I could go on and on. If you talk to anyone who is selling a product, they will find a reason why you need their product. Here is my concern. DNA testing has become a "product." It is not in the interests of the companies (all of the companies) who are "selling" DNA testing to tell you or anyone else why their product does not work and why you should not buy the product.

If I go out into the marketplace to purchase a product, say a new car, a camera or a computer, I sometimes have years of experience with purchasing those items. If you were interested, I could talk shop with you about cameras or computers or even cars for hours, perhaps days. When I buy a camera, I know exactly what I am getting. I know exactly how I am going to use the new camera and I generally use them until they are beat to death. I am the same way with most products. My average time for keeping a car is way over ten years. I even buy used cars. I have driven the same car until it literally began to fall apart. I have purchased hundreds, perhaps thousands of computers over the years. I probably know almost every argument in existence about the merits of Apple OS X as opposed to Windows 8.1 and many other highly technical issues. In each of those areas, I am also familiar with people who are fanatical about one brand or type of product over another. I was raised in a community that was divided between Chevy and Ford buyers. I currently participate in a community that is divided between Nikon and Canon. I was in retail sales for many years and know first hand all about selling products.

So, when DNA became a product, I looked at it as I would any other product. If I were going to buy a new truck for example, do I really need to get into the science and politics of "flexible fuel" or do I evaluate that particular feature from the standpoint of a consumer who has to pay something extra for the "feature." The same thing goes for GPS, Sirius Satellite Radio, and on and on. In each case, there are "technical and scientific" considerations, but what it boils down to is whether or not the product does what it is supposed to do, but more importantly, do I need the product?

I approach genealogy the same way I do any other area. I am bombarded with "products." Because of my interests and because I can, I have examined and used hundreds of genealogy products. From my standpoint, in genealogy, DNA testing is just another product.

DNA is also a big business. In Arizona alone there appear to be dozens of testing companies. Almost all of them are selling their product for legal, immigration and paternity users. They are also advertising their tests for kinship, infidelity and a variety of other uses. Here is a quote selected at random:
Paternity testing and Human Identity testing are useful for determining paternity (parentage) and kinship among individuals. There is, of course, interest in the lifestyle and financial ramifications of having a child, which explains the use and popularity of paternity testing, but the usefulness of DNA human identity testing goes further than that. Identity testing is often used in the forensic sciences as well. 
It is of interest to many individuals to know their biological roots, especially when it involves health issues that may be inherited. For this purpose, DNA identity testing, similar to paternity testing, can be used to determine kinship to determine whether an individual belongs to a family group and may have related health issue concerns. Our kinship tests can help you sort that out.

Kinship tests are important to determine whether a person is related to another person. These tests, along with typical paternity (parentage) tests are useful in the contexts of adoption, immigration, divorce, child custody, estates and more.
As with any product there is a price list. The somewhat standard price for DNA testing runs from under $100 to over $500.

What all this boils down to is whether or not I need the product, DNA, and whether or not I want to pay for it. But more importantly, how does DNA testing really fit into the area of genealogical research? Considering the dozens of DNA testing companies right here in Arizona, isn't DNA testing for genealogy just a repackaged product sold to the "genealogy market?"

That's enough for now. I will keep thinking and writing about this subject for a while, not exclusively, but until I get tired of it and move on to something else.

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