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

Monday, May 2, 2016

Genetics, Haplogroups, Ancestry, DNA and Genealogy

Genetics is the study of heredity and the variations in inherited characteristics. Let's say I wanted to become a geneticist. I would have to have some of the traits necessary for success. Here is a description of what a geneticist does from the website article, "How to Become a Geneticist-Geneticist Career."
Geneticist Job Description 
Geneticists are responsible for studying how genes function to produce cells and organisms, and how hereditary traits and mutations are passed through generations. Geneticists apply their knowledge for purposes such as treating and counseling patients with hereditary conditions, as well developing of pharmaceutical and agricultural products. 
Geneticist Job Duties
  • May specialize in fields such as biomedical genetics, developmental genetics, molecular genetics, agricultural genetics and others
  • Study inheritance and the variation of characteristics in different life forms
  • Plan and conduct experiments to determine the laws, mechanisms and environmental factors present in origin, transmission and development of inherited traits
  • Analyze hair and eye colour difference, size, disease resistance and other determinants that are responsible for specific inherited traits
  • Make use of light, heat, chemicals and other means in order to devise methods for altering traits
  • May perform human genetic counseling or medical genetics
Becoming a genetics doctor has the same career track as any M.D. or D.O. program, including medical school, residency and licensing. Progress requires fellowships and certification.

So far I haven't found any mention of the word "genealogy" in conjunction with the professional side of genetics. So where does this faddish interest in DNA testing come from? Actually there has been a rather circuitous route from the study of genetics to the use of DNA testing in genealogical pursuits and that road has been rocky and highly controversial. Part of this story has to do with the forensic use of DNA. I might mention at this point that I began practicing law long before the first use of DNA testing in forensic investigation. My legal practice started in 1975 and the first forensic use of DNA testing in a criminal case was in 1986 when DNA testing was used to solve a case in England. If you would like to read a very short summary of the court history of DNA testing in the United States see "Evolution of DNA Evidence for Crime Solving - A Judicial and Legislative History."

DNA testing as a common, relatively uncontroversial practice in the U.S. court system did not become resolved until around 2001, long after I had focused my practice in areas that did not need DNA testing as evidence. I was more concerned with land surveys and fence lines than DNA testing. I would attribute the popularity of DNA testing as a fad to TV shows such as CSI and NCIS.  See "CSI changed the DNA of TV crime dramas." Anyone who doesn't think there is a direct link between CSI, NCIS and genealogists' interest in DNA is in denial. These shows put DNA testing into the realm of magic. What these shows promote as entertainment entirely ignores the evidential court battles that occur as a result of the TV shows' sometimes sloppy and unconventional methodology.

Genealogical DNA testing began in the year 2000 with the establishment of two companies, Family Tree DNA and Oxford Ancestors. See Genetic Genealogy on the International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki. This article has a short summary of the concerns of genetic genealogy. Here is an interesting quote:
Genetic genealogy is also concerned with phylogenetic analysis. The phylogenetic tree of Y-chromosomal haplogroups, popularly known as the Y-DNA haplogroup tree, is maintained by a volunteer team of researchers from the International Society of Genetic Genealogy. The phylogenetic tree of global human mitochondrial DNA variation, known as the mtDNA tree, is maintained by Mannis Van Oven and is published on the Phylotree website. Knowledge of one's placement on the Y-DNA or mtDNA tree can extend the genealogy of the patrilineal or matrilineal line beyond the traditional paper trail, and it is sometimes possible to make inferences about the geographical origin of the patrilineal or matrilineal line ancestor.
We are talking about the last 15 years or so, a really brief time to establish a relatively complex integration of science, technology with the emotionally laden, hobby-level genealogy world.

It would be nice if I could wave my CSI and NCIS magic wand and solve all my genealogical problems, but I am becoming more skeptical rather than less as I continue my journey of discovery and refresh my memory as to why I got out of criminal law entirely many years ago.

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