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

Monday, April 18, 2016

Can a DNA Test Resolve my Ancestral Quandaries?

I recently began an in-depth study of DNA testing as it relates to determinations of ancestral relationships. I have found a close analogy between the life insurance industry and the relatively recent ancestral DNA industry. Both represent their products as solutions to rather general problems. I do not want to give specific examples that identify providers, because the issue is one of general application to all of the providers. My analogy does not work with liability or health insurance, but only with life insurance.

I am looking at an ad for life insurance that reads, "Now is the time to take another look at your life insurance." Implicit in this ad is the assumption that the reader of the ad already has life insurance. When I was much younger, with my children at home, I was the target of a number of very persuasive life insurance salesmen and I bought and maintained a series of life insurance policies. As I gained an increased level of sophistication from my law practice and involvement in various business ventures, I realized that life insurances was not something that everyone needed. life Insurance policies also varied considerably in their cost and application. At one point, to further my education, I obtained a license to sell life insurance and was affiliated with a national life insurance company.

Basically I learned all the reasons why life insurance was not a solution to the standard problems proposed by the salespeople. I also learned all the limitations and reasons why someone might not need life insurance. As a result of my legal training, I felt duty bound to explain to any potential purchaser of life insurance why they may not need the product. This is not a good way to sell life insurance. I don't remember ever selling even one life insurance policy.

Now I find myself hearing very similar advertising pitches from DNA companies. As I have mentioned before I once again find myself in the position of hearing product claims that superficially seem beneficial but appear to apply to only very specific situations. The life insurance analogy becomes stronger the more I learn about DNA testing. Essentially, ancestral DNA testing is justified as a way to "get people interested in their ancestry." Potential users are encouraged to learn what percentage of their DNA comes from populations around the world. Examples are given of unknown family members reunited and other "success" stories. The DNA literature immediately launches off into a technical discussion of the "hard science" involved in the process.

The reality is that DNA testing becomes less specific as you go back in time. My own family tree is not a "standard" example. I have solid, extensively documented evidence of my ancestry back at least six generations on every line. As I have expressed previously, there are now some very specific issues that might be resolved with DNA testing, but a solution would require some confirming tests from a variety of relatives that may or may not be available. Even it we were to obtain the cooperation of my relatives (not at all likely in many cases) there is no way DNA testing per se can provide a solution. The only benefit derived from the DNA tests would be additional information on lines that have been extensively researched.

So I am back to the life insurance analogy. Life insurance is a product that can solve some very specific problems. But unless the problem and the needed solution are well researched and analyzed, simply purchasing a general life insurance policy will not necessarily solve a specific need. It is the same with DNA testing.

Before I jump into the fray, I realize I need to do some very specific research to define the problems I want to resolve.


  1. A show on Oprah revolved around her DNA. Her sample was submitted to various "genealogy" based labs - her results came back with vastly different ancestral backgrounds. I wish I could again watch that individual show.

    It has stayed in my mind how unreliable the assorted DNA services are (or could be).

    I don't remember if Oprah used her real name or a fake name when her DNA was sent to the labs.

    We also dropped life insurance when our children were on their own. But, Oh My, we are overrun with offers. "there's no one got endurance more than the one who sells insurance"

  2. A good thoughtful article that puts another view. I too am reading up on the topic and have taken a test to see where it leads, if anywhere.

  3. FamilyTree DNA offers Y and mt tests which can go back a very long time following the male and female lines. To use those effectively, you need to identify living sons of sons of sons and daughters of daughters of daughters of your ancestors and then get them to take the test.

    1. Yep, and that assumes they will talk to you at all.