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

Monday, January 19, 2015

DNA and How My Views Change

I have a lot of residual opinions and issues left over from nearly 40 years of practicing law (I never did get it quite right, even after all that practice). I am frequently asked how I can write so much. Well, if you had been a lawyer for almost 40 years you would have a lot of opinions about nearly everything in the world and in my case, it will probably take another 40 years or so to get them out. Meanwhile, my wife and I live pretty much encapsulated in a genealogy oriented world, so it is not too difficult to come up with a whole bundle of new opinions.

Now about DNA. For the past couple of years, this has been the buzz word topic in genealogy conferences and such. But my interaction with DNA testing goes way back. I had been practicing law for only about ten years before DNA testing became a new hot topic. I understand from doing a little research that the first use of DNA in a criminal prosecution case was in England in 1986 where the accused was exonerated after testing. See Wikipedia: DNA profiling.

In Arizona, as elsewhere, there was extensive discussion about the dangers and merits of using DNA testing in court. For a brief history of the use of scientific expert evidence, see "Novel Scientific Expert Evidence in Arizona State Courts" by Paul F. Eckstein and Samuel A. Thumma. The issue in a court setting in Arizona was whether or not the evidence offered conformed to a requirement that the procedure was generally accepted in the "relevant scientific community." This doctrine was referred to in Arizona as the "Frye Test." However, very recently, in 2012, Arizona abandoned the Frye Test by adopting the new Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Here is the new Federal Rule:
Rule 702. Testimony by Expert Witnesses
A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if: 
(a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;
(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.
OK, all this came too late for me to really get into this particular area of the Rules of Evidence, by 2012, I was almost completely retired from the practice of law. But I certainly understand what I would have to do to lay a foundation to get any scientific evidence into court including, if necessary, DNA testing. This new rule is not so different than the old ones I had been practicing under for years.

The issue here for me is rather complicated. DNA testing falls into the category of scientific expert evidence. I was painfully aware of the pitfalls and difficulties in establishing a legal case based on "scientific evidence." I saw the popularization of the use of DNA for other purposes, such as those being discussed for ancestral determination in genealogy as pop-science at about the same level as all the fad diets and other fads "supported by clinical studies and other scientific evidence." My interest level hovered around zero.

In addition, I could not see how a general DNA test that would give me a certain percentage possibility of a relationship to vague ethnic groups could assist me in finding my ancestors. Finding out that I had a certain percentage of Scandinavian genes would not be a surprise or very helpful. The classes I attended on the subject were full of "scientific explanations" about Y-chromosomes, Mitochondrial DNA and Autosomal DNA with little to tie any of the complex discussion into anything practical in the field of genealogical research. Finding out that I had a small percentage of Neanderthal chromosomes did not appeal to me very much either.

At the same time, I did not feel compelled to take any position with regard to what other genealogical researchers felt would help them in their research. It was not a case where I disbelieved that DNA testing could establish genetic relationships, that was pretty much a proven fact. But it was a case where I was unconvinced that DNA solved very many of the difficult problems in genealogy. This was especially true when people I talked to had DNA testing done but had no background genealogical research to support any useful conclusions. Hypothetically speaking, if I took a DNA test and got back exactly what the companies promised I would receive, I would know exactly nothing more than I already knew or could reasonably suppose. I might as well spend a few bucks to find out what colors I should wear or what type of diet would make me into a movie star.

Could my mind be changed? Yes, if I could see a concrete example of exactly how DNA testing would help me with real, expertly done, genealogical research. So that is what happened in two classes with David Ouimette, CG of FamilySearch at the recent Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy.

David did not approach the subject, like most other presenters; with a detailed explanation of the background science of DNA testing. I had always considered all the scientific jargon to be a smokescreen for the fact that DNA testing would only help a very small number of people. But David showed how it worked in genealogy. That is what I needed. I needed a concrete, genealogy-based explanation of how this DNA testing could actually result in advancing genealogical research.

I also came to the conclusion that I did not need to get involved with DNA testing for my own research until I encountered the types of problems set out in the SLIG classes. The key here was the fact that companies such as and have accumulated huge online family trees and that by comparing DNA samples from various people, you could establish the high possibility of common ancestry. In short, if the research was done back to common ancestors, then DNA could assist in establishing a high degree of possibility of relationship in certain narrow cases.

Voila! DNA had a use in genealogy. I didn't need it, but others might. This happened because David Ouimette ignored most of the science (very reasonable choice) and focused on the genealogy.

One result of this is that I can now write about DNA without having to interject all of my negative baggage about fad diets etc. For that reason alone, I had ignored the subject in my writing.  Classes do change opinions and help you to learn.


  1. It is possible to make genealogy progress using DNA. I write on this from time to time on my blog and elsewhere.

    Then there is this:

  2. Very interesting. I appreciate your wise and teachable spirit.

  3. James

    Is there some reference you could give that will allow us to find accurate information on DNA testing that can show us how this testing can be of help to genealogist? I am especially interested it the mtDNA testing.


    1. I am not in any position to endorse any one program over another. They all seem to give slightly different results and have different features. But that sounds like a good blog post topic. Thanks.