A Random Thought on DNA Testing

This is a subject that has been written about many times before, but it is something I think all of us involved in the DNA side of genealogy need to be thinking about.  I am the President of our local genealogy society, and I teach DNA/genetic genealogy through that organization.  Consequently, I get a substantial number of questions from those who have recently tested.  Typically, it goes something like this: “I just got my DNA results back and it says that I am 60% [Lower Slobbovian].  I know for a fact that all of my ancestors came from [Upper Slobbovia].  These tests are a ripoff!”

They don’t ask about matching; about centiMorgans; about triangulation of segments; or about third-party analysis tools.  Their primary interest seems only to be in their ethnicity “estimates.”  And this is from genealogists, mind you, not from the general public who are buying these kits hand over fist.

The problem is that the industry has chosen to use “ethnicity” as the face of DNA tests.  From television to the print media to the internet, we are all being told that all you have to do is plunk down $59, or $69, or $79, or $99, then spit in a tube [or swab], mail it in. and then they will tell you what your ethnic makeup is.

I’m a DNA junkie.  I’ve tested at every major lab (awaiting My Heritage results), and here are my results so far:

Ancestry: Western European – 70%  and British Isles – 28%

FTDNA: British Isles – 67%, Southeast Europe – 19%, and Scandinavian 14%

23&ME:  British Isles – 59%, Northwest Europe 34%, Southeast Europe 4%, and Scandinavian – 3%

Living DNA:  British Isles 98%, Southeast Europe 2%

Being a practitioner in the field, I understand several things, and I can correlate these results.  First, we know that the “science” behind ethnicity predictions is still in its infancy, and is far from settled.  Also, each testing company has its own proprietary algorithm for making these estimates.  We also know that we do not inherit an equal share of DNA from each ancestor, particularly the farther back we go.  And there are other factors bearing on these estimates that are too numerous to list in this short article.

Nonetheless, if I was one of the great unwashed mass, my reaction to the above numbers would be that its all a load of crap.

One of the speakers at I4GG last month (I think it was Blaine Bettinger) said we now have 10 million people, worldwide, who have DNA tested, and the prediction is that by this time next year we will have 20 million.  I know that not all of these people are interested in genealogy, but it is a great opportunity for our avocation to vastly expand is ranks.  However, I think this is a real storm cloud on the horizon.  If the testing companies don’t start treating ethnicity with a little less hype, and a lot more honesty, that it will be kind of like Dezi used to say: “Lucy, you gotta lotta ‘splaining to do.”

Sumner Walters: 5 January 2018

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