Monday, August 14, 2006

DNA Article Ratings: 6.5, 8.5 and ?

Boy, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I decided to rate articles on genetic genealogy that appear in the mainstream media! I knew it was a trendy topic, but it seems there's been a constant stream of articles in recent weeks. So here are some remarks on the latest batch I've spotted:

Unearthing roots of family tree
This article is a short one and it's hard to assess its accuracy because it doesn't really say a whole lot, but after some consideration, I'm giving it a 6.5. It gives a mini-case study about a fellow named Gerstenberger, claiming that he had hit a brick wall in his research due to a church in Poland being destroyed during WWII. It's very possible that a church his family attended could have been destroyed, but when you're dealing with Eastern Europe, "the records were destroyed in WWII" is frequently one of those myths, rating up there with the likes of "our name was changed at Ellis Island" and "three brothers came to America . . ." And believe it or not, they do have archives over in Eastern Europe, so one church being destroyed does not necessarily a brick wall make.

The article says that DNA testing showed that he matched other Gerstenbergers, and recently, he left to attend a family reunion in Germany. This I can believe, but I wanted to do a little more checking. So I went to
Relative Genetics (the testing company cited in the article), and sure enough, 18 Gerstenbergers had been tested there (and perhaps others elsewhere since many use multiple testing companies these days). This led to a link to a Gerstenberger genealogy site, and yes, I can see from the posted results that the fellow featured in the article does indeed belong to the same genetic cluster of Gerstenbergers as those holding the reunion in Germany. So the story is credible.

It is, however, somewhat alarming that he posted results under the names of those actually tested and even includes some of their birth dates. While there are no formal standards in genetic genealogy, it's a widely accepted practice -- in the interest of privacy -- to post results under codes or the name of the earliest known ancestor of a testee. But this quibble doesn't affect the accuracy of the article. In fact, his sharing this info is largely what made it possible for me to assess its accuracy.


Then we get to this statement: "Chromosomal Laboratories in Phoenix offers a $160 test that claims to be able to trace ancestors back 70,000 years." This is an attempt to bring some local flavor into the piece since it's for an Arizona publication, but it's an awkward juxtaposition because the average reader will assume that the same kind of testing was used for the Gerstenberger test and this one. I went and checked the website of this company just to be sure, and yes, they test for haplogroups, so we're talking "deep ancestry" here.

Unfortunately, novices will read this -- and believe it or not -- will interpret this to mean that there's some sort of magical DNA test that will reveal all when it comes to their roots. And that's the main reason I'm giving this brief article a 6.5 -- because this is exactly the sort of inflated expectations that popular press articles tend to create.

DNA tests can prove Boone blood
This article discusses the fact that it's now possible to get DNA tested to determine once and for all whether you're related to Daniel Boone. This is an example of what I suspect will be a growing trend -- that is, getting tested to find out whether the family tale of being related to someone famous is true or not.

This article stands up well to scrutiny. The writer didn't overstate things by saying that you could determine whether you're descended from Daniel Boone. Rather, the examples given underscore the reality that many who think they're descended from him are actually descended from his brothers or other paternal relatives. Of course, DNA tests can only confirm a connection to Daniel -- not reveal exactly how a test taker and the frontiersman are related -- but the article manages to avoid raising false hopes by simply using the word "connection."

And if you check out the Boone DNA project (which includes a number of variations), you'll see that a pedigree chart is required to participate -- usually an indication of a well-run project.

The piece even goes on to dispel a couple of other myths associated with Daniel -- the coon skin cap and all that. So primarily because the writer valiently resisted the urge to exaggerate, I'm giving this article 8.5.

Think you're a real Scot? Try checking your DNA
This is a really tough one to assess. On the one hand, it's tantalizing as folks keep asking me whether there are tests to determine if they're, say, Scottish or Sicilian or Rusyn. And I have to explain that that's a little pipe-dreamish at the moment. And oh, by the way, people have been intermingling for millenia, so it's always an iffy proposition to spout out any absolutes.

On the other hand, the company offering this test is Ethnoancestry and they know a thing or two about this topic. Jim Wilson, featured in the article, is an Edinburgh-based population geneticist and he and David Faux, VP of the company, have a near-obsession with those of Scottish ancestry.

So these folks seem to think they've identified a Pictish genetic signature. And they're using 27 markers. Hmmm . . . OK, I'm going to wimp out on this one and not assign a score. To me, it's one of those remains-to-be-seen situations. I'm always wary when folks make claims of having identified a genetic signature that neatly categorizes people (remember the Genghis Khan test?), so the skeptic in me is on full alert. But I don't have evidence to contradict it, nor am I an expert in Scottish history or genealogy. To be continued . . .

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