Twenty-six years ago the late U.S. Poet Laureate Maya Angelou published her poem “Human Family” with its memorable stanza:
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
While many of Angelou’s words have been called upon for inspiration in recent months, this poem is particularly poignant. Few of us could argue with the observation that we are in the midst of a bitterly divisive time in the U.S. Seemingly everywhere we look, in print and online media and in our everyday experiences, signs point to how different and disconnected we are from one another. The “us and them” (or, worse, “us versus them”) rhetoric has become deafening. Blaine T. Bettinger offers a refreshing contrast and a kind of reprieve with his recent book, The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy. In it he describes, in the simplest of terms, how to begin using genetic technologies to connect with both close and more distant members of our great human family.
Millions of us are part-time genealogists, that is, people who use documents and oral narratives to determine where the branches on our family trees lead and how the pieces of our personal family histories fit together. Genetic genealogy is simply the practice of adding DNA to that toolbox. Readers with little or no familiarity with genetics will find Bettinger’s overview of the underlying science and his comparison of products available on the market to be understandable and unintimidating. (As an intellectual property attorney, Bettinger undoubtedly has gotten the knack of simplifying the complicated.) While highlighting DNA’s appeal, he is careful to caution readers against viewing genetic ancestry tests as a replacement for traditional genealogical methods. “Only when DNA and traditional genealogical records are combined do we begin to fully extract the full value of genetic testing,” Bettinger writes.
Genetic genealogy is not new. In 2000, Family Tree DNA offered the first commercial genetic ancestry test in the U.S. The rise of genetic genealogy over the last decade is probably due to a number of factors. First, there are now several relatively inexpensive — and heavily advertised — personal genomics services. Second, Americans have been captivated by television programs such as Finding Your Roots, a PBS show hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Some academics have fretted that the public does not have an adequate understanding of genetic genealogy’s limits, ethical dimensions, or its legal, political, and social implications. While I’m not convinced that’s true, The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy offers anyone interested in genetic genealogy a commendable starting point.
Bettinger explains how readers can get started with genetic genealogy, discusses how they might go about selecting the appropriate test (or tests), and counsels them on making sense of the results. In a practical style suggestive of the “For Dummies” self-help books, he offers details on how DNA can help genealogists locate evidence to support or refute purported relationships, breaks down several common misconceptions, highlights some of the ethical challenges (for example, what if dad turns out not to be biological dad?), and supplies readers with template worksheets and a collection of useful nonacademic resources.
Examples of what he calls DNA in Action are sprinkled throughout the book; these illustrate the concepts he discusses. Bettinger addresses two important points often overlooked by newcomers to genetic genealogy. One is that could be and are are not the same thing. Another is the old adage that “absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” Personal genomes tell only part of our histories. The genetic contributions of some ancestors might not be detectable. Moreover, genetic analysis is unable to tell us about ancestors whose contributions are social and psychological rather than genetic. Even if we click through their user agreements without reading them, reputable genetic ancestry companies will clearly state their assumptions, methods (both laboratory and statistical), and levels of confidence in their test results.
Genetic genealogy can be a powerful tool to break through the brick walls that so often frustrate genealogists. But there is one aspect of genetic genealogy that, while given limited attention in this book, is worthy of mention. Bettinger refers to it as “ethnicity estimates.” The availability of genetic ancestry tests gives human rights advocates both hope and pause. There are notable concerns about the use of genetic genealogy in the aftermath of a presidential election that has seemed to normalize xenophobia and racial animosity. For years bioethicists have warned of the potential reinforcement of racial stereotypes and so-called biological essentialism that could occur if people start to give improper weight to unreliable tests. They’ve worried that white supremacists and others might seek genetic ancestry tests as a means to “police” ethnic identity and control immigration.
On the other hand, sometimes genetic genealogy can provide hope and clarity. African-Americans’ genealogical efforts are often thwarted by the lasting effects of slavery and racial discrimination (for example, by having historical surnames and identities erased or stolen). Genetic ancestry tests can help African-Americans to reconnect with relatives who could not be located through other means.
Without question, genetic genealogy could be an instrument of oppression — a way of reinforcing differences over which we have no control. But I would like to believe that, instead, it will help us to see how each of us is connected to the human family in a way that summons our country’s motto: E pluribus unum — “out of many, one.”