Monday, January 18, 2016

The Tedium of Testing

The weary genealogist may presume that, after years of false leads about just where to pin relatives onto the family tree, taking a DNA test will bring on the easy answers. Not so.

I know the genetic genealogy tools now available to us are astounding developments and reveal some precious clues for which we've all yearned for years. But that doesn't mean those answers will come easily. It seems that, after the test results arrive, that's when the real work begins.

Some sobering thoughts, before we ever begin the process:
  • Unless you go out, actively soliciting them, you only get matches if another relative happens to decide, coincidentally, to test.
  • Even if you are related to a distant cousin, you won't necessarily show up as a match in that person's results.
  • Not everyone who spends (significant) money to test is actually interested in comparing genealogical notes with you.

I have been painfully aware of that first point for as long as my DNA test results have been posted on the website of the first company at which I tested. Since I had my brother tested, I've hoped to settle that Theodore-Puchalski-alias-John-McCann mystery. I've been waiting for two and a half years. Still no answer. I guess no one in Poland—or their pertinent descendants—has stepped forward to test. Until any of those distant family members do, I won't see any matches that will lead me to sound conclusions.

As much as I've banged my head against the proverbial brick wall since discovering my mystery DNA cousin just over a year ago, I've failed—so far!—to identify how I'm related to that adoptee. Material I've picked up in class last week revealed a curious twist that may be the reason why my exact match mtDNA connection doesn't yield any autosomal results to put us together on the distant cousin map. While DNA testing companies like to predict relationships that stretch to the level of sixth cousin—even eighth cousin at AncestryDNA—it is actually a very small part of our ancestors' DNA that gets passed the whole span of that relational distance. For instance, third cousins, on average, share less than one percent of their DNA. Where does that leave the hundreds of DNA matches in my file at Family Tree DNA who land at the realm of fourth to sixth cousin? What about those eighth cousin predictions at AncestryDNA?

Then, too, with the recombination of DNA over several generations, it is highly likely that some of those fourth to sixth cousins—and beyond—whose names hang on our family tree do not share one iota of DNA with us at all. Oh, they're still related to us, of course. But we'll never find them on our FTDNA match list.

And so it goes. I receive hundreds of names of potential matches, sit back for a while to ponder the avalanche of names and family trees—and then wonder why no one is writing me to gleefully connect with a newfound cousin. I decide to switch from passive anticipation to proactive researcher, sending out scores of introductory emails, and wait for the answer. The silence, in return, is sometimes deafening.

I can understand—at least in the former scheme of things—why, say, a customer at 23&Me, eager to discover whether he is doomed to die of a heart attack, might not have had the patience to answer my trifling query on the level of "Are you my cousin?" But I still struggle with the revelation that, at companies that cater to the genealogically-inclined, there would be matches who have no intention of following through on their test results.

Perhaps they never realized, given the amazing accuracy of such tools as these we now can use for genetic genealogy, how much grunt work is still left to the process.

Above: "The Hunters in the Snow," oil on oak panel by Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. I suspect some folks simply don't understand what they got back as results and expected to get names of cousins instead...of having to do some "work."

    1. You are right on track with that, Iggy! It would be interesting to see how many actually fall into that category. Add to that the others who tested for non-genealogical reasons (for instance, 23andMe) or to get those colorful ethnicity charts. I guess not everyone wants to find more cousins.

  2. Replies
    1. Well, at least after all that classwork, I feel more encouraged that tackling that long list of matches may actually turn up some helpful results.


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