Sunday, April 30, 2017

Airports and That Perennial Question

I'm sure many people have questions nibbling at their mind as they rocket through airport terminals on their way to their departure gate. Perhaps travelers are wondering whether their flight will leave on time. Or whether the plane is fully booked. Some may be eyeing fellow passengers with suspicion or doubt, replaying in their mind every bad news day from sixties-style Cuban hijackings to the more-realistic horrors of our own century's rocky start.

Mine aren't at all like those questions.

When I walk through airports—as I just did the other day, leaving from Newark, New Jersey, on my way home to California—I get overwhelmed by the sheer mass of humanity. Everyone, coming and going, represents a life pathway from a different town, a different generation, a different heritage. But just as much as they are different, they can also be startlingly more alike than we'd ever expect. The strangers we pass in airports—or any large gathering place, for that matter—could be the very kids we once grew up with in our hometown. Or fellow students from our alma mater.

Even more than that—assuming we'd actually know the folks from our hometown, needing only to be re-introduced (should we have taken the time to stop and talk in that bustling terminal)—the people we rush by in airports could be the third cousins we've never met. The ones who know quite well just what became of our brick-wall second great grandmother, or who got the one remaining photograph of the woman. Or knew what her maiden name was.

But we rush by, never knowing whom we've just passed, or what opportunity we've just missed.

DNA testing companies are like those airports. While we could have the potential to match up with those strangers who really are family, there are some delimiting factors represented by those airports. We're all flying into New York City, for instance—only some of us fly into Newark, while others choose to land in LaGuardia. Still others end up at JFK International. It's pretty elementary to understand that, even if I and that mystery cousin choose to fly the same airlines, if each of us lands at a different airport, our paths will never cross.

Granted, we all have tickets issued to us, identifying us and linking us to vital details such as address, phone number, or credit card account. Within the isolated universe of our own airlines of choice, someone can sort through the myriad data to pinpoint our needle in the information haystack. We can be confirmed to be, say, a Southwest passenger arriving at gate fifteen at Newark airport at noon on April 30.

Just so, DNA companies can identify certain information about their customers—enough, even, to match us up to other "passengers" on the flight from, say, Germany, as opposed to the flight from Ghana. Our selected company can tell us even more than that about others having similar "flights" from our ancestral heritage and lands. But they can't tell us about passengers on other flights from other companies. To know that, we'd have to access the ability to sort data from another proprietary source.

In my case, with my mind always wondering if I'll cross paths with a distant cousin who can join me in puzzling over our mutual ancestry, I've made the choice to travel from all of the three "airports" currently available to me. I've already "flown" from Family Tree DNA and from AncestryDNA. Soon, I'll have my ticket validated at 23andMe, as well. And, as other companies emerge to compete in the field, I'll likely try them, as well.

A genealogist's mind must have been developed to seek pathways of connection between people. I'm constantly wondering how I connect with others, and what the degree of relationship might be; walking through airport terminals revs up that tendency in me. DNA testing is one way that helps identify some of those links. Innovative cousin-matching apps like the Wall of Ancestors launched for the Ontario Genealogical Society conference this June in Ottawa naturally catch my eye, and make me hope other organizations develop ingenious ways to find connections, as well.

Someday, there will be more apps available to help find those interpersonal connections. "We're Related," though sometimes maligned, is one attempt to satisfy that very question. We want to peer through the invisible connections and make visible the ties that, sometime in our past, could be said to bind us together. 


  1. Jacque. that's very interesting way to think of our connections. Perhaps we should stand at baggage claim with a sign: a diagram of our DNA & the question, Are we related?


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