Saturday, April 22, 2017

Fear of DNA

If you pay any attention to the genealogy world, you've no doubt heard of the sales in celebration of what is dubbed National DNA Day. The designated day, April 25, refers to the 1953 publication date of the James Watson and Francis Crick article in the scientific journal, Nature, announcing their discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. (April was also a good month for DNA benchmarks in 2003, with the ahead-of-schedule completion of the human genome project on April 14. But, just as we Americans do for Presidents' Day, we've demonstrated we can celebrate two events on one single day—and that day has been designated to be April 25.)

So let the sales begin! Family Tree DNA started the volley of announcements when it launched its celebratory sale on April 20 with, among other things, an autosomal test price of $59. You know had to get into the action, as well, with their twenty percent price markdown for U.S. customers (and various other offers for customers in the U.K. and Canada). And newcomer to the DNA scene, Living DNA, offers $40 off their current price.

DNA sales come and go. Remember the winter holiday season? That was the first time—at least as far as I recall—when the autosomal test at Family Tree DNA dipped as low as their current $59 sale price. If you sprang for that price, you were in good company. Holiday sales significantly pumped the number of participants in the database of each of the then-three major testing companies.

But not everyone who purchased a test sent back the completed specimen. How do I know this? I have a relative who wanted a test for Christmas, received it, then...chickened out. Perhaps he was afraid of what he'd find.

He's not the exception. I asked a distant cousin if she—or one of her siblings—would be interested in participating in testing. As it turned out, one of the siblings decided not to participate. While that is a person's own prerogative, I often wonder whether there are some who fear what they would discover. There is definitely an unclear edge to that unknown. For some, it might mean discovering an ethnic heritage which turns out to be a surprise. For others, it might mean meeting up with an unexpected close relative.

We do have to tread tenderly as we progress into the unknown of this brave new DNA testing world. When I read, on Randy Seaver's blog Genea-Musings, the Living DNA announcement of their new partnership with one of Germany's largest genealogical societies to "map the genetic history of Germany," I wondered how that announcement would resonate with those familiar with Germany's more recent history. If you've read Christine Kenneally's excellent book, The Invisible History of the Human Race, you'll recall her recounting of the German requirement, leading up to World War II, for citizens to keep a notebook of their own family's pedigree.

For those who remember that dark side of human genetic interests, perhaps breathless announcements like Living DNA's latest collaboration may not seem as welcomed as would be hoped by the company's investors. The idea behind the premise seems sound, even exciting; according to the Living DNA announcement,
the project's aim is up the most detailed and accurate regional map of Germany's genetic history—prior to the loss of territory and mass departures from the eastern parts of Germany that occurred as a result of WW2.

Just as Living DNA did for its British Isles genetic genealogy project, in this German collaboration, they are seeking individuals willing to participate who can demonstrate that all four of their grandparents were born within fifty miles of each other. With the development of a healthy-sized database drawn from such fine-grained details, it will be interesting to see how accurately the resulting reference population can pinpoint predictions of German ancestral origins within specific regions.

That's on the bright side of genetic genealogy: the positive take on what we can learn about our own family histories. On the grim side, though—and evidently there are some for which these details evoke dark memories or cautions—there is a track record from the past which gives some pause to consider the need for embedded protections.

What is it about DNA that prompts some to jump eagerly into the pursuit of such discoveries—and others to shrink back cautiously? DNA is like a light that shines on our deepest secrets, uncovering clues about everything from our past relationships to our future health problems. Whether about personal or national issues, we need to respect genetic genealogy applications such as DNA for the powerful tools they really are.    


  1. Another awesome post. I did now know of that german requirement to keep family history. I have family members who are afraid and others, who refuse to listen to information found. They want to believe the stories. I for one, have a inquiring mind and was surprised at my DNA, but it didn't bother me one bit. I guess I just don't understand those who I will try to be more patient with them.

    1. I meant, I did NOT know of that german requirement. My keyboard is sticking. :-)

  2. We have found the same thing in our family. They don't want to be tested for Alpha 1. I guess they want to wait until they cannot breathe anymore:(

    1. And that is so much more a vital issue for testing. I guess people are afraid of the unknown. But not knowing sometimes makes the future even worse.

      I hope your family members decide to go ahead and test. If nothing else, I'd think they'd want to know if they didn't have it--at least then, they'd have the peace of knowing, rather than the worry of "maybe."


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