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

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Are DNA Experts Genealogy Experts?

The marriage of genealogical DNA testing to more traditional genealogical research has produced some dramatic results for finding relationships in the first few generations of an ancestral line. Finding a birth mother or father or related grandparent was and is extremely difficult using research-based genealogy. This is due in the most part to both privacy concerns and court rules that "seal" adoption records and change the names on birth certificates.

But I have seen an interesting phenomenon; many classes and presentations about DNA testing talk about biology almost to the exclusion of how the DNA tests can be used in real genealogical research practice. I have spent the last few years reading and studying about DNA testing but I am sure that no one would consider me a DNA expert merely because I don't represent myself as one. Additionally, I do not have a degree in any biological science. However, I do have years of experience as a genealogical researcher and a background, including years of formal genealogical training, that qualify me as a research genealogist. What if I suddenly started billing myself as a DNA/Genealogy expert and began teaching and presenting about DNA? I guess the follow-up question is how then do DNA experts get to genealogy experts?

I have been reviewing the calls for papers for genealogy conferences around the country recently and I recently saw one from the National Genealogical Society (NGS) that said: "NGS also requests proposals that include the integration of DNA and technology in family history research as well as methodology and problem solving." That statement is exactly my point, where do you find people who are competent to address that subject? Granted, there may be a few. There probably are biologists who are now involved in genealogy and can adequately address the real issues in using DNA testing beyond the first two or three generations so it is possible that such a presentation is possible but what qualifies them as competent in both areas? Experience with solving one difficult genealogical relationship issue?

Not too long ago, in October of 2018, the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) adopted Standards for DNA Evidence. Quoting from an announcement dated October 28, 2018:
BCG firmly believes the standards must evolve to incorporate this new type of evidence,” according to BCG President Richard G. Sayre. “Associates, applicants, and the public should know BCG respects DNA evidence. It respects the complexity of the evidence and the corresponding need for professional standards. BCG does not expect use of DNA to be demonstrated in every application for certification. However, all genealogists, including applicants, need to make sound decisions about when DNA can or should be used, and any work products that incorporate it should meet the new standards and ethical provisions
The announcement goes on to state, in part:
Meeting the Genealogical Proof Standard requires using all available and relevant types of evidence. DNA evidence both differs from and shares commonalities with documentary evidence. Like other types of evidence, DNA evidence is not always available, relevant, or usable for a specific problem, is not used alone, and involves planning, analyzing, drawing conclusions, and reporting. Unlike other types of evidence, DNA evidence usually comes from people now living. 
I might comment that very few of the ads I have seen for genealogical DNA testing include any reference to the issues raised by BCG. Here are the areas that the new standards will address, also from the announcement.
• Planning DNA tests. The first genetic standard describes the qualities of an effective plan for DNA testing including types of tests, testing companies, and analytical tools. It also calls for selecting the individuals based on their DNA’s potential to answer a research question.
• Analyzing DNA test results. The second genetic standard covers factors that might impact a genetic relationship conclusion, including analysis of pedigrees, documentary research, chromosomal segments, and mutations, markers or regions; also, composition of selected comparative test takers and genetic groups.
• Extent of DNA evidence. The third genetic standard describes the qualities needed for sufficiently extensive DNA data.
• Sufficient verifiable data. The fourth genetic standard addresses the verifiability of data used to support conclusions.
• Integrating DNA and documentary evidence. The fifth genetic standard calls for a combination of DNA and documentary evidence to support a conclusion about a genetic relationship. It also calls for analysis of all types of evidence.
• Conclusions about genetic relationships. The sixth genetic standard defines the parameters of a genetic relationship and the need for accurate representation of genealogical conclusions.
• Respect for privacy rights. The seventh genetic standard describes the parameters of informed consent.
I certainly applaud the BCG for addressing this basic issue. One thing that articulating a standard does is raise the bar for declaring oneself an expert in both genealogy and genealogical DNA testing. The new standards have been published and are available for purchase on the BCG website and from Here is a link to the sale.
I might remind everyone that if you buy through Amazon Smile they will donate a portion of the sale to a charity. In our case, you should consider naming The Family History Guide Association as your charitable donation recipient.

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