DNA technology has changed genealogy a lot – but also not much

  • This illustration, with the most recent generation at the bottom, reflects how DNA can find ancestral links - in this case, the female in black at the top is the most recent common ancestor all the females in the present, as seen through mitochondrial DNA - but can also miss ancestors. —Wikipedia

  • A visitor does research in the Genealogy Room in the State Library. The building was originally the state Supreme Court. N.H. State Library

  • The Genealogy Room in the State Library is home to town and family histories. It was built in 1895 and was originally home to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. —Dept. of Cultural Resources

  • An architectural drawing of the Genealogy Room in the State Library is home to town and family histories. It was built in 1895 and was originally home to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. N.H. State Library

Monitor staff
Published: 2/11/2017 8:00:21 PM

People have been studying genealogy for about as long as there have been people – remember all those “begat”s in the Bible? – but these days something has been added: Genetics.

The sharp fall in cost and rise in effectiveness of genetic testing, an increase in our understanding of humanity’s genetic history, and the spread of online databases and commercial sites allowing easy comparison has expanded the search for ancestors way beyond dusty books and records. So we wondered: How has this affected what sometimes is called America’s most popular hobby?

The answer: A lot, but also a lot less than you’d think.

“It has had a huge effect, particularly on forensic work,” said Diane Florence Gravel, a genealogist who is president of the New Hampshire Genealogical Society. “I think it really started being accepted as a supportive aspect of genealogy maybe 3 to 4 years ago. It was kind of slow to really take off, but now it’s routinely used in a lot of the articles the National Genealogical Society publishes.”

Gravel just got back from a class about what genealogical research can and cannot do with various types of material, such as Y-chromosome (men only), mitochondrial DNA (women only) and autosomal DNA (both sexes, but tricky to interpret).

At the amateur level, the appeal of genetic genealogy is the same as the appeal of most new technology: It promises to do things more quickly and more exactly, drawing in folks who wouldn’t otherwise be interested.

“It even got my husband interested in it. He just glazes over when I talk about it, until he got his own DNA results; now he’s interested,” Gravel said.

Uploading results to online databases is particularly exciting because it lets people find connections they didn’t know existed, perhaps to a second cousin nearby. And sometimes it debunks connections.

“My grandmother always said that we had Indian blood, but every time you asked her it was a different tribe – we’re Seminole, Creek, Cherokee – so I wondered about it,” Gravel said. The result from her own genetic testing? “There is not a single drop of it in me.”

Genetics, as I’m sure you know, is the biochemical mechanism that provides the blueprint for who we are. (Only a general blueprint, however. Other biochemical processes, notably the complex way that genes turn on and off and produce the proteins which do the work, as well as a myriad of environmental factors, make at least as much of a difference.)

The components of the genome are shuffled between parents during sex, and a mixture is passed down to children. The promise of DNA testing is that it can pinpoint specific bits of the genome that get passed down from parent to child unchanged, and use them to backtrack through history, making a connection to past generations.

Improvements in genetic testing have spawned several companies. Their claims for individuals may be overblown at times – I saw them described on one medical website as “genetic astrology” – but they can provide valuable information for more recent family connections, as well as spur interest.

Not that New Hampshire needs much spurring of genealogical interest. We already have a lot here, both inside and outside our borders. That’s partly because we’re wonderful people, of course, but mostly it’s because of history. Many, if not most, Americans with any ancestors from Britain or some northern European countries can trace their family tree back hereabouts.

“We have about 400 members, and they’re from all over the country; so many people have New England roots,” Gravel said.

In Concord, you can see that interest at 71 S. Fruit St., in the nondescript building that houses the New Hampshire Department of Archives. Inside, the surprisingly handsome research room is often bustling with people hunting down connections with people long gone.

“We get very sophisticated amateur genealogists here. This is a Mecca for them, because lots of people whose families are now in Omaha, or Sacramento, or Portland, Ore., started here,” said Michael York, the state librarian and acting commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Cultural Resources.

“There’s a lot of material here,” York said. “We’ve got a very solid collection, good collection, of family histories, town histories, a lot of tools for checking one’s history.”

Which means that they’ve seen a big uptick in interest since Ancestry.com and the like started blitzing us with advertisements and shows like Finding Your Roots and History Detectives filled the airwaves. Right?

Not really.

“I anticipated the question and asked the staff, and they don’t see any difference,” York said. “They say we get a few people who say, ‘I just went onto Ancestry.com and did their DNA test and I found X’ but that’s rare.”

The reading room with its extensive computer-supported data (the state library and archives have been going digital for more than 30 years) are no more crowded these days than they’ve always been.

This answer surprised me, I admit. So far as I can figure, it may indicate that people who take the effort to come to the archives building are so far along in their research that they’re beyond the effect TV shows and print-outs produced by cheek swabs.

And it may say something about this new fad. If more folks brought into genealogy by new-fangled advances aren’t graduating to archives-level research, then maybe technology can only take you so far.

In other words, genetics is an aid to genealogical research, not a replacement for it.

“It’s used as a validation tool. You still have to have the paperwork, the actual in-the-trenches research,” Gravel said. “If somebody came in with (genetic tests) saying ‘I’m related to George Washington!’ – I would want more than just that.”

So before you mail off a cheek swab and a check to determine whether you’re a descendant of Charlemagne (don’t get excited – it’s amazing how many people are told they are a descendant of Charlemagne) talk to your parents, your cousins, uncles and aunts, record their stories and their memories, find out what they know about earlier generations. Head to town halls or the county courthouses, try online searches through newspapers archives and cemetery databases, and generally poke around.

You may find new connections or you may not, but you’ll almost certainly be surprised by something. And that’s better than a high-tech printout any day.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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