What are the pros and cons of DNA tests for family history?

By Guest, 25 April 2019 - 10:37am

On DNA Day, Jerome De Groot reveals his research into family historians' responses to DNA testing - from breaking through brick walls to privacy concerns

DNA test family history
Jerome de Groot led a team of researchers speaking to family historians about what they found from DNA testing (Credit: KTSDESIGN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY)

DNA testing has transformed family history. Around the world, tens of millions of people have used the various types of test currently on the market to help solve their genealogy riddles and get an overview of their heritage. But how has this new technology changed people’s approaches to their family’s past, and what concerns are there about testing?

Find out more about the different kinds of DNA testing with our guide

I’m a professor at the University of Manchester, and leader of the research project Double Helix History. For two years my team and I have travelled the world talking to family historians about their experiences with DNA tests, and asking their opinion of genetic genealogy.

It seems that the family history community is in the midst of profound change, trying to work out how to deal with this challenging new technology.

Many people we spoke to had embraced it enthusiastically. Others were more cautious and worried about privacy, some dismissed DNA testing as a fad – and there were researchers whose lives had changed fundamentally.

One of the questions we were interested in was whether different cultures approach DNA testing in different ways. We spoke with family historians in South Korea, Poland, Ireland, the UK, the USA, Australia, the Netherlands and Japan.

We discovered that DNA testing seems more popular in Anglophone nations – the vast majority of those seriously using genetic genealogy are in the UK, Ireland, Australia and the USA.

In the USA and Australia, the researchers we spoke to had used DNA tests to break down many of the brick walls they faced including unacknowledged illegitimacy, adoption, name changes and mysterious deaths.

In the less heavily administered colonial contexts of the 19th century it seems it was easier for people to marry bigamously, disappear, or change their names and move on. DNA testing is helping family historians to overcome these obstacles.


Digging up the past

Australian genealogists see their work as being more challenging than in Europe, because of a comparative lack of information. DNA offers them a new way of researching without having to travel so much.

However, they did recognise the irony of uncovering the scandalous mistakes of their ancestors. “They came here to make a new start, and here we are digging it all up again!” one researcher in Sydney told us.

Family historians in the USA are keen to use DNA to strengthen their bonds with their ancestors: “They’re a part of you, increasing your sense of self.” Many we spoke to thought of themselves as immigrants, tracing the complexities of their family lines through genetics.

In comparison, researchers in Holland we made contact with seemed to be underwhelmed by the information they had found, preferring to emphasise that genetics is simply a “new tool within the genealogy area” that might help their work: “If you are using it as a toy, I don’t think you will get any answers.” Dutch users preferred mitochondrial tests and surname-related study to commercial autosomal tests. 

As for South Korea and Japan, DNA testing for genealogy barely exists here. The National Library of Korea in Seoul, and libraries across the country, are home to thousands of jokbo – genealogical books that trace the lineage of a single family name. This centralised administration of genealogical practice means that individual research into a family history is rare, and genetic genealogy even more so.

Indeed, Japanese society seems highly resistant to genetic testing for the purposes of family history. Some Asian Americans, particularly adoptees, are interested in the techniques but are wary of the results – especially regarding ethnicity – and how they might be interpreted.

Historic family photograph DNA
DNA testing can help you find out more about your ancestors (Credit: Alamy)

Tribal trouble

In Australia, the USA and Canada there is controversy about the way in which indigenous DNA information is interpreted and used in commercial family history archives.

Krystal Tsosie, a DinĂ©/Navajo geneticist–ethicist, says: “No tribal nation accepts these results for enrolment purposes.”

In addition, when we began speaking to family historians about genetics some years ago, they were worried about how to ‘read’ their DNA test data.

Some complained about going to “presentations that may as well have been given in gobbledegook”.

Now, with the many online tools and support groups out there, people are more confident about approaching their DNA data.

Crowdsourcing, community collaboration and social networks are extremely important to this developing area.

New tools such as DNA Painter are becoming popular, and websites like GEDmatch are getting bigger all the time. Family historians are having to learn new skills and join new communities to help them with their DNA investigations.

Respondents regularly cited how to store data and how to read the information given as challenges: “I use tools on the internet, but often they are too basic or too technical.”

Some people were sanguine about the new information: “I think genealogy has not changed, the process has not changed – you just have an extra tool for your research.”

Also, respondents were worried about people doing DNA tests who have no skills in family history. Many felt this was a major problem for the community in terms of furthering research by finding shared ancestors: “The hardest thing is that there are so many people who’ve had their DNA analysed and they’ve got no family trees or history.”

Most of the family historians we spoke to said that their test results had been a significant help. There was a lot of excitement about being able to solve mysteries this way.

They had found unknown parents and grandparents, newly adopted members of their family, or relatives that they had not expected: “For many of us, it’s helped us break through a number of brick walls, particularly if you have any adoptions or illegitimacy in your tree.”

Some of the riddles had been long-standing: “I only did the test this year and was really lucky – I unlocked a mystery I’ve had for 30 years.”

One family historian commented that DNA “has opened up doors that were closed – it made me look deeper, beyond the paper trail”.

Yet some also wondered about problems with the process. “Why don’t our DNA results match up to what we’ve discovered in our research?” said someone in Manchester.

The sheer scale of the data produced worried others: “It is overwhelming to start with.”

DNA test school
A Double Helix researcher talks to school pupils (Credit: Double Helix)


Just a gimmick?

A lot of our respondents had a good understanding of DNA and the whole testing process, in particular the issue of genetic ethnicity – although one of them described it as the “gimmicky ethnicity part”. They felt this was simply a marketing tool, and not something they were particularly bothered about.

What they were interested in, however, and what gave them the insights they needed and the links they wanted, was the raw data. For most users we spoke to “it’s about the matches – not ethnicity testing”.

The major worries among family historians were to do with the potential impact upon their relatives who are alive today.

Although one researcher asked, “Have we the right to reveal our ancestors’ secrets?”, they are generally comfortable uncovering scandal about events in the past. Yet “dealing with this generation right now” is another thing altogether.

In the words of one family historian: “We’ve discovered a huge skeleton in the closet.” Another commented: “DNA will either open a can of worms, or create new and positive relationships.”

Many of the family historians we spoke to had discovered that male relatives had been unfaithful, or that they had cousins they didn’t know about. “There’s a massive responsibility involved in what we do with the knowledge we have,” said one.

Others raised the point of the legal issues involved when dealing with adoption or the children of sperm donors – and the different laws between states or countries.

There’s also the lack of control over such information: “With DNA, you’re in the database, the results there are accessible to anybody else who has got a match… umpteen other people who could let the cat out of the bag, and cause even more damage.”

This sense of duty and responsibility seemed new, something that people felt had not been as pressing before: “I’d think twice now about having it done… are you really prepared?”


Commercial exploitation?

Other users were alarmed at the thought of DNA information being used commercially. Someone pointed out that “they’re presumably not doing it for the public good; you can pay for the test, then they sell the data that you paid them for”. Others asked: “Are companies going to sell my results – and to whom?”

It’s clear that there is still a lot of confusion and concern about DNA testing, and there are many different responses to the technology.

Some family historians are trying to educate themselves; others say that they’re “suspicious of testing”; still others are “thrilled by the new source that DNA provides” and the way it “brings family history to life”.

With the growing amount of data that is available, genetic genealogy offers great benefits while opening up all kinds of ethical, privacy and technical issues. This “golden age for family history”, as one respondent put it, may pose as many questions as it answers.

MyHeritage DNA test swab RootsTech
An attendee takes a MyHeritage DNA test at the RootsTech conference, February 2017 (Credit: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Case study: How an Ancestry DNA test helped one family historian discover the GI father he never knew

An autosomal DNA test provided the breakthrough that retired BBC journalist David Hulme, from Stockport, Greater Manchester, had dreamed of.

For 25 years he had tried to identify the American soldier who had used a false name during his affair with David’s mother in the Second World War. David thought that he would go to his grave without ever knowing the truth.

However, in 2015 he contacted the UK organisation GI Trace, set up to help people like David find their American GI fathers. “The genealogists at GI Trace advised me to take an autosomal test,” said David.

The results of the test that David took with Ancestry showed that a second cousin in the USA had also been tested. Through her, David identified his father: Allan Russell Edwards, from Detroit, Michigan.

Unfortunately a fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center in St Louis, Missouri, destroyed most of the USA’s military records – between 16 million and 18 million in all.

But staff at the Center spent the years following the fire rebuilding up its archives from any sources they could find. The documents that GI Trace located at the NPRC confirmed that Allan had served with the 837th Ordnance Depot Company, which was in Stockport between May and June 1944: the period when David’s mother became pregnant with him.

“My father died in 1964, so we were never destined to meet,” David explains. “But I am now in touch with a half-sister in northern Michigan, and we hope to meet one day. I also have a half-brother in Detroit, although he prefers not to communicate. I can understand that. Discovering my father and his family has been life-changing.”

David also learned that, through his paternal great grandmother, he and all of the Edwards family in Michigan are the descendants of two Mayflower passengers: Stephen Hopkins and Thomas Rogers.

GI DNA father
David Hulme used DNA testing to identify his biological father
The full version of this article appears in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine May 2019
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