Wednesday, January 28, 2015

“Citizen Science” and Genetic Genealogy

Of what purpose is it to determine familial relationships that reach beyond face-to-face familiarity?

It may seem strange to consider family relationships as distant as the eighth cousin scenario I mentioned yesterday. Yet, when we engage in the kind of DNA testing available to us today—and combine that with the paper chase for our family’s roots—we find ourselves delving into those kinds of distant relationships.

Why bother? It’s not like we’re in a rush to assemble the world’s biggest family reunion—although, admittedly, somebody is. However, given the technology and the passion, we are handily equipped to engage in what is being called genetic genealogy. Every time we spring for that hefty DNA test fee, whether we are conscious of this or not, we are participating in assembling a body of knowledge about the joint past of all humanity.

If you haven’t considered this aspect, stop for a moment and consider Spencer Wells’ presentation last fall at the Genetic Genealogy Ireland event, part of Dublin’s Back To Our Past conference. Dr. Wells spearheads the National Genographic Project for National Geographic. His brief video, which you can see at the bottom of GGI2014’s announcement of his keynote presentation, nicely dovetails the Genographic quest with our genealogical pursuits.

You have got to know that there are numerous scientists eager to tap into such an assembled database of DNA results. Researchers are hoping to augment their understanding of pre-historic migratory patterns—as well as find resources to resolve other human challenges: anthropological, genetic, medical.

Along with the amazing arenas open to these researchers, with the rapid expansion of technology comes a mind-boggling enormity of databases. This puts me in mind of a term I was introduced to several years ago, in a book by Jeff Howe. The book’s title—and the word I’d like to dwell on for a few moments here—is Crowdsourcing. While his subtitle reveals the author’s focus—“Why the power of the crowd is driving the future of business”—it is equally applicable to science as well as business.

In fact, another term I had been introduced to at the same time—which fits in handily here—was that of the Citizen Scientist. Before the era of grant-driven scientific research, an acceptable paradigm of research was to include the viable observations of amateurs who were well versed in their field of study. Even at A Family Tapestry, we had met up with one amateur scientist of the early 1900s, in the person of Judge R. C. Flannigan’s wife, Anna Mary Haessly Flannigan, the persevering bird watcher in Michigan.

That grand tradition had all but disappeared in the mid 1900s, but has thankfully been making a comeback. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology organizes projects among its bird-watching adherents through the auspices of its “Citizen Science Program.” In astronomy, some of the latest discoveries have been through the efforts of citizen scientists, a fact not lost upon NASA—which devotes a page on its website, “For Citizen Scientists.” The American Association for the Advancement of Science is launching the first conference of the Citizen Science Association this coming February 11 in San Jose, California. Citizen science has come of age.

Clay Shirky, an author and instructor at New York University, has written about the dynamics behind the resurgence of citizen scientist movement. In his 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody, he examined the impact of the Internet on organizations and group dynamics, observing that technology’s tools boost collaboration in a way that lets it supersede the restrictions that once made many accomplishments the monopoly of institutional prerogative. Key in the shifting dynamic are the online tools that allow groups to get together and achieve tasks that once were considered too costly for their potential value.

In a Wikipedia article on citizen science, that very dynamic was noted:
Large volunteer networks often allow scientists to accomplish tasks that would be too expensive or time consuming to accomplish through other means.

Now, what does all that have to do with DNA testing? Think again about what you are achieving when you spring for that autosomal DNA test. You are not just out on a dilettante’s lark to locate distant relatives.  You are joining the many who are citizen scientists confirming—or correcting—the state-of-the-art conclusions of geneticists about how the human genome should be read. Every time you persevere in confirming a relationship among one of your DNA “matches,” you are sending your informed vote to those who watch the database at large: Yes, this is my sixth cousin, or No, this is not the correct relationship. We are not only using the technology for our own benefit. We are concurrently sending feedback, based on our own genealogical expertise—in a task that surely would be too expensive or time consuming for any research organization to fund on its own. Even an organization as respected and well-funded as National Geographic.

We, too, are citizen scientists.


  1. The volunteer birdwatchers are and have been still numerous. :) Annual bird counts take place - around here, on Hawk Mountain, they count the migrating hawks as they go north or south per season, through a gap in the mountain range.

    1. If it weren't for a dedicated and informed group of volunteers like that, many of the science projects today would not be able to achieve quite as much. Some tasks are so overwhelming to do on a budget--in other words, with adequately paid staff--that they would otherwise not be done. Volunteers such as these fill a valuable place in our quest for knowledge in so many areas.

  2. Crowd sourcing at it's finest has been happening in Facebook. My husband is gathering together all his classmates in one spot. Have you seen the Fundraisers...the fellow that lost his home to lightening his son raised 3,000 from facebook for him... I see lots of good things...friends and neighbors helping each other out. :)

    1. Yes! You are absolutely right, Far Side. Some of those stories are so heartwarming. Actually, in the books I mentioned, there were several example stories as well.

      As it dawns on people that with social media, they have a potential connection with the rest of the world, there is no limit to the ingenuity that can be applied to problem solving.

  3. I had my Dad's DNA done and we are sadly one of the small groups of people that very little is known about. Further testing is being done to try and pinpoint more about our family. I could not believe it because I had it done to help answer questions, but instead we have more questions.

    There has definitely been some good come out of it however. I've discovered that my ancestor b. 1763 is actually a closer match to those of the same surname(Gurganus) than those in his same county. It's something I never would have guessed or at least it would have taken a very long time to figure out. It's created new insight and new connections for me.

    1. I had that same disappointment over testing for my dad's side of the family as well, Michelle. It's understandably deflating to receive such results. Of course, that was the upshot of using the Y-DNA test, in our case.

      Hopefully, in your dad's case, as more people get involved in DNA testing, his autosomal test results will yield some helpful matches. And it's good to know you gleaned some useful details from the process, regarding the Gurganus surname.

  4. This very point was made in my genetic genealogy class at SLIG, Jacqi. Citizen scientists are making real contributions to DNA studies. Because genetic genealogists--even amateur ones-approach results from a little different perspective, they open the door to possibilities that hard-core scientists may not have considered. In the end, I think we will all benefit.

    1. Interesting to hear that that was brought up at SLIG this year, Shelley. I certainly gleaned that possibility from the comments at the Genetic Genealogy Ireland conference last October. I think combining our respective proficiencies has been beneficial in this field. We are helping to verify in practical terms what geneticists have been theorizing--and together we are doing it on an extremely broad base.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...