Why would I even consider it? Natural curiosity, mostly. Everything suggests my background will be vastly European … mostly northern European. The immigrants that made “American Laura” came from the Netherlands, Norway, England, and Denmark. The stories told to me through the years and the records I’ve uncovered in my research are all remarkably consistent in this regard. I have no personal physical characteristics that puzzle me, and no one ever asks me what my ethnicity is. So what is the point? Am I expecting to find something unaccounted for back there? I have no idea. I just find the whole notion of our human history … especially the migration to America … completely fascinating, and personalizing it just intensifies the curiosity.
On a more practical level, I have a few “brick walls” in my family history research, and a DNA test might provide a way forward (or .. err… backward). Some of the DNA testing companies will connect you with people who share your more distant genetic background. Maybe DNA information could break through those walls, either by direct genetic connection or through the exchange of records or personal stories. In at least one case, I’ve already looked at the basic genetic information in a surname DNA project. I cannot participate in the project because it’s based only on the y-chromosome and my connection is through my late great-grandmother. However, by looking at the data, I am able to identify one of my 19th-century male ancestors from Iowa and connect him to English ancestors further back. This at least gives me some destination points for my research, even if the path there is still not entirely clear. And having destination points is kind of a big deal.
So what’s the problem? It freaks me out a little, to be honest. That’s a whole lot of information. Will it raise more questions than it answers? Will the test be difficult to interpret and understand? Will it even be accurate? If the results are unexpected, will they disrupt my understanding of myself and my ancestors? Can the test really tell me anything? Or will it duplicate what I already know and just be a waste of time and money?
And then there’s the “does it really matter?” question. What matters are people’s experiences and the stories that get passed down, not their genetic code. I often struggle with whether to call my hobby “family history” or “genealogy.” It’s a little bit of both … but frankly, it’s the family history part that is the most interesting … and ultimately, the most important. By far the most rewarding part of my family history quest has been the stories I’ve found and the history I’ve learned in the process. DNA won’t change those things … though it could lead me to more of them.
Finally … perhaps my biggest qualm … what about privacy issues? I consider myself a pretty centered person, but I can do the “black helicopter” thing pretty well, too, given an opportunity and some prompting. Will the information fall into the wrong hands and be used to deny me health coverage for some as-yet undiscovered health condition at some point in the future? I don’t really plan to use it for health information, as there’s nothing in particular I’m looking for there, but would that necessarily stop someone else from using it for that purpose? I’m not sure I really care for the idea of my genetic information being sold as part of some en masse product for research. And when I really get my imagination going, I can conjure up some future dystopia in which all those with recorded DNA information are grouped by the New Overseer according to their genetic markers … and that Viking marker somehow comes back to torment me.
I’ve read both the skeptics and the product marketers. I’ve read and listened to a few testimonials. And I’m still on the fence. I’d still be really interested in hearing from people who’ve wrestled with this. What did you consider in deciding to do a DNA test? Why did you decide to do it … or not? Did you learn what you’d hoped to? More than you’d hoped to? And if I do get to a tentative yes, which of the available tests should I prefer — Ancestry? 23andMe? Family Tree? — and why? So many questions …