Tuesday, 3 July 2007

DNA Skeptic

I've never had the pleasure of meeting Michael John Neill. He writes for Ancestry's Weekly Journal, which gives him a measure of credibility in genealogy circles. It was a bit of a surprise to see a posting at rootdig.com attributed to him, Is DNA that big of a deal?

He writes about DNA hype, "in the vast majority of cases DNA does not provide the type of relationship precision we need" and "I do not give one iota about where my ancestors were 100,000 years ago."

Neill is obviously not one, but I do find many genealogists who are interested in the distant origins of their family. They like to get some insight into their ancestors part in the great world migrations to ancestral homelands thousands of years ago. It's a pursuit every bit as valid as conventional paper-based genealogical research.

I was interested in mine, but didn't get especially excited. As only the strictly paternal (Y-DNA) and the strictly maternal (mitrochrondial DNA) lines are traced by normal genealogical DNA tests, you get information on only two of your two to the power N ancestors that lived N generations back. By the time you get to a couple of thousand years back that means practically all of us share many common ancestors. What's so special about those two lines?

What Neill fails to acknowledge is the great benefit DNA can be in the genealogical timeframe.

This may come as a shock, but not everything written on paper or parchment, no matter how musty, is the truth. People lie, especially about paternity. Is there any great genealogical virtue in following a paper trail back when the paternity described is a fabrication?

Neill may have forgotten the situation described by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak where DNA was able to show that two Smolenyak lines from a small village were in fact distinct, there was no common ancestor. That saved much fruitless effort in record offices to try and unite the lines.

Neill argues that less effort should be expended on DNA research, and more in digitizing local records. It isn't an either or proposition. There's room in the this world for the benefits of both.

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