The Genetics of Genealogy

In many ways, we feel disconnected. … I think this is simply the latest application of technology to allow people to connect with the past that, in many cases, they feel that they’ve lost. … I think it is part of a larger movement to connect with our perceived past, who our ancestors might have been, because we feel that we’ve lost that.

Spencer Wells on Open Source

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Where’s your branch? [Maia C / Flickr]

We’ve long been a nation of amateur genealogists. We trace roots. We draw family trees. We hang our grandfather’s clan’s tartan next to our grandmother’s Navajo rug. Largely a nation of immigrants, voluntary or forced, it’s how we make sense of how we got here and who we are. (Which is why, I guess, genealogical websites rank second only to porn on the internet.)

This is the parallel, personalized history of the U.S., a history not of the country’s Founding Fathers but of our own founding fathers — and mothers. And whether the Old Country was Portugal or Poland, Ghana or Guatemala — or perhaps all of them — there’s a good chance that someone in your family is filling in a particular branch of our wonderfully mongrel American tree.

Until recently, this would have meant poring through Ellis Island logs, town clerk’s records, maybe slave ship manifests, and, increasingly the Mormons’ mammoth International Genealogical Index, the largest genealogical database in the world. And, of course, taking part in an oral tradition: listening to and passing on familial creation truths… or myths.

Now comes genetic analysis, which promises to add some meat to the bones of your cherished Mayflower stories — or smash them to bits. For anywhere from a little over $100 to $1000, you can now find out all kinds of things about your history. Do you want a migration map of your likely American Indian forbears? Might you have Jewish ancestry? (Henry Louis Gates does, he recently found out.) You could go for the Cohanim/Levite test and move up a level in your temple’s ritual hierarchy. Or figure out how many generations back you have to go to find out the most recent ancestor you share with your next-door neighbor, who seems like she couldn’t be more different than you.

Is this something you’d want to do? Is this something you’ve already done? What did you learn? What did you do with what you learned? When the molecular evidence contradicts the family lore, do you still print the lore?

It’s clear what we gain when we add the certainty of DNA analysis to our stories and sense of who we are. But what do we lose?

Spencer Wells

Explorer-in-residence, National Geographic

Project leader, The Genographic Project

Author, The Journey of Man

John Hawks

Blogger, Johnhawks.net, an anthropology weblog

Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University

of Wisconsin–Madison

Andy Carvin

Blogger, Andy Carvin’s Waste of Bandwith and DNA Cousins

Director, Digital Divide Network

Y-chromosome Haplogroup J; Mitochondrial DNA Haplogroup pre-HV

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