Genealogy DNA Test: Yes or No?

DNA_icon_att2It’s been a few years since I began debating whether to do a DNA test to supplement my genealogy research. Yes, I have all kinds of qualms. And yet it is just so compelling.

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 conspiracy 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 …

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7 Responses to Genealogy DNA Test: Yes or No?

  1. I love 23andme, and I have tested with all three companies. I have tested multiple members of my family. This month I receive a new match which “proved” my hard work of over fifteen years of tracking a paper trail with minimal evidence, is in fact overwhelmingly probable. Don’t put it off any longer! The longer you wait, the more older relatives you will lose (and be unable to test).

    • ljhlaura says:

      Thanks, Genealogy Lady! Since you did all three tests, I wonder … were the results consistent across all three?

      • There are two aspects of autosomal DNA tests. The first is the ancestral breakdown. Across the three companies they are relatively consistent (with big differences). This is something that has been discussed very heavily in the genetic genealogy community. At this point, the ancestry breakdowns are not an exact science. At this point, I view the ancestral breakdown as a bit of a parlor game (it is fun to look at, but it’s not science). A LOT more people of diverse ethnicities will need to test to make the ancestral breakdown better. Of the three, I think 23andme is the best when it comes to Ancestral breakdowns. I have heard a top genetic genealogist refer to 23andme’s ancestral breakdown as the current gold standard.
        The second aspect of DNA is the match list. This is where the DNA is most useful, and can really be used as a supplemental tool. 23andme and FamilyTreeDNA offer chromosome browers, while Ancestry does not. Ancestry can’t even compete in this part of DNA research because they don’t offer the basic tool needed to do the job.

  2. Amy says:

    I used both 23andme and FTDNA. I like FTDNA better because you can see the names of your matches and compare the DNA without having to wait to hear from the other person. It’s much easier to contact matches. I’ve had a terrible response rate from 23andme.

    As for the value of DNA testing, I think it really depends. I had 1000s of matches, but only ONE proved to be a real match of any value. But for members of an endogamous population (Ashkenazi Jews), that’s not unusual. You may find more “real” matches.

    I don’t find the ethnic background terribly helpful since most of us already know our ancestral background. It’s the new relatives that help break down those brick walls. Good luck!

  3. ljhlaura says:

    Thanks, everyone. It all seems quite complicated to me, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out if I decide to do it. The matching function seems like it might be one way to tackle some brick walls. Appreciate the feedback very much!

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