Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Emperor's New Clothes: A Pep Talk

I've been re-thinking my foray into genetic genealogy recently, and I don't like what my mind is telling me.

Perhaps this is all owing to my resolution, early yesterday morning, to go cold turkey on all the coffee that's been powering my days in the past few busy weeks. A lackluster, caffeine-less day may have colored my thoughts an uncharacteristically somber gray. But let's just have it out, anyhow. As they say, I'll feel so much better, once I get this off my chest.

Just like the innocent bystander—the child watching from the sidelines as the emperor parades by, exhibiting his brilliant new designer fashion devised by the cunning weavers who outfitted him—I feel like blurting out, "But this science isn't producing any results!"

Face it: I have 850 matches to my autosomal DNA results. Besides my own brother—whom I asked to do his DNA tests—you would think I could identify more than the four distant cousins who've agreed to cooperate enough with me to confirm our relationship. I mean, the best I've found is a fourth cousin connection. All the others are at the level of sixth cousin. Those outer margins of relationship could be just as hazy as an "Identical By State" coincidence, if not for the proof in our paper trails. "There is no recent common ancestor," my inner child wants to shout.

It is wearying, checking week in and week out, harvesting the new crop of matches, going through their trees—if they even bother to post them—and sifting through surname after surname, in the vain hope of finding a surname common to my own four-thousand-name database.

I keep telling myself, "It's the luck of the draw." Surely, my lack of progress is because no one else more closely related to my lines has decided to participate in DNA testing. Yeah, that's the ticket: more players!

And I presume that perhaps these are genealogical newbies who just need a hand up on sketching out their family tree back far enough into the murky past to reach the level of fifth great grandparent necessary to determine that sixth cousin connection. So I start pushing my own tree out farther, roping in siblings in each generation, then following those lines down to their modern-day descendants. You wondered why my maternal tree has nearly four thousand names in it? Now you know.

I can't help but think, seeing all these "sixth cousin" matches, that perhaps a good percentage of them are merely coincidental. It was a sad day, indeed, when I learned the shorthand term, IBS—Identical By State. In other words, no common ancestor.

Sometimes, in plugging away, name after name, "result" after result, I begin to feel like the beleaguered courtiers in the emperor's service, afraid to shout out the obvious when I see what I see. Do I believe what my eyes are telling me? Or cling desperately to the party line? Are these really genetic confirmations? What percentage of results yields false connections, anyway?

Year after year, though, I attend trainings and conferences and read articles published on the use of DNA testing in genealogical research. I hear marvelous stories of adoptees reunited with birth parents—unthinkable only a few years ago. There must be something to this science.

Then, there is the angle of being a trailblazer. This isn't the first time that role has been foisted upon me. I'm often out there, the first to push back a generation on a line no one else seems to be researching. Oh, how I'd love to connect with some cousins—but then I realize there may not be any third or fourth cousins on some of my lines, especially my paternal lines. Or, if there are, they haven't yet discovered a love for genealogy.

Besides, what is the point of asking my second cousins to do DNA testing? I already know them. True, it might help with triangulation and other tricks of the genetic genealogist's trade. But I'd like to let random selection rule the day on that matter.

So, there I am: grousing about my DNA testing experience. Bummed about the (multitude of) results. Focused on what I can't see—instead of what I can see.

Maybe it's true that the emperor wears no clothes. But maybe that's not what I should be looking at. It may all come down to finding a different set of lenses with which to view the results. There may, after all, be something there worth seeing.


  1. I would think "falling back" onto statistics would explain some of the "lack of success" you have had so far. You have 850 so-called "hits" and roughly 5,000 ancestors plotted - the country has 300,000,000 people in it - and only a very small number have done the "DNA testing." The odds of a jackpot would seem to me to be about 1 in 50,000 or perhaps even worse.

    1. That's a serious thought to consider, Iggy. The numbers certainly go against any hope of finding significant matches.

      I think the most useful way to view this is to consider the ones who've had the most benefit from DNA test results. For instance, adoptees being reunited with birth parents. There, testing is not just a casual observation, "Oh, look, we match," but an applied effort to locate a specific unknown.

      Of course, there is likely another reason I've been so bummed about results: small families will, obviously, have smaller results. It is likely those members of large families, down through the generations, who experience the most encouraging results, simply owing to the fact that there are a lot of them in their family's gene pool. Relatively speaking, they are drawing from many more multiplied possibilities of connections, over their generations, than I have.

  2. Jacqi I've had similar frustrations and too am eager to have one of those incredible moments when the stars align and I find the answer to an aching genealogical question. I've asked myself if it is my lack of knowledge on the subject of DNA, lack of the right participants or exactly what?

    I will say that I have similarly noticed that there are particular family trees that seem to have an abundance of descendants eagerly sharing photos, stories and connections and then there are other trees that stand seemingly stark and alone with few descendants displaying interest by participating in the ancestor hunt. I've thought it just my luck to fall into both categories---the one with few DNA matches AND few posting trees and sharing information..

    1. Michelle, that's an apt way to put it! I try to encourage myself in that situation by calling myself a trailblazer on those trees that sit so quiet and unattended. Just think: if you weren't researching those lines, maybe nobody would be.

  3. You should just cut that caffeine down slowly..I quit cold turkey and had headaches for a week! You seem to have lost your mojo...hope it comes back soon:)

    1. Don't worry, Far Side, my mojo will be back shortly...probably after I get over this week of being double-booked!!!


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