A student introduced me to Groupon coupons, and I signed up in order to see what they were about. For a year or so I’ve been continually deleting their email offers until one appeared this week that featured discounted DNA testing. Having heard that the test for ancestral lineage only worked on male DNA, I asked my brother again if he would be willing to take the test. I explained about my friend whose Irish ancestry led to Spain, and thought, with the majority of solidly Irish surnames in our family, it would be fascinating to know what would come of this scientific approach to our story. This time—for me—he agreed that he’d go ahead.
I had taken my research as far as I felt I could genealogically go, to the point where the paper trail evaporated into educated hypotheses. Of course I am still interested in finding out more, and like so many others, I wonder if DNA testing might be a worthy gamble. I am not gullible enough to believe there would be a connection to some famous person, nor do I care. I do wonder, however, if a swab from a cheek could lead to a specific meridian point on the map of Ireland that would prove how close to the mark I came in my own studies. Would that possible validation be worth a hundred dollars?
Many will remember the 1977 television mini-series that made visual Alex Haley’s novel, Roots: The Saga of An American Family. The burgeoning interest in finding out about one’s ancestry was fueled and made accessible through the Human Genome Project, which ran between 1990 and 2003. A slew of Public Television and other fascinating broadcasts followed this great experiment to learn about the common genetics between groups and individuals around the planet.
After some initial Internet surfing about this topic I ended up chatting online with a representative from a competing company to the one offering the DNA testing discount. He explained that the new test being done does not discriminate by sex and that it gathers a much larger sampling, factoring in all the attributes from the lines in one’s ancestry, going back 300 years and ten generations.
I assumed that a DNA test would result in data that could also be shared with that in a surname database, but he told me that is not so. A test for mitochondrial (MT) DNA, female-based, would be different from that looking at male Y-chromosomes, and neither would be the same as the one looking at the entire composite of chromosomes from all ancestors on both sides—autosomal testing. He said that my brother and I would likely have at least 75% similar results. Often siblings will each take the test to see if one person tends to have more particular DNA aspects or traits than the other, as the combinations mingle differently in each person. He stressed that their most expensive test, (which provides a framed certificate of authenticity) would get the most of the kind of information I sought, and offered a $30 discount for it if I would not mind staying on hold while he conferred with his colleagues, after which our chat connection dropped.
Given the online offerings, there are clearly many different companies doing the three types of testing, which vary by the number of markers revealed and the size of the database available for comparing results. There seems to be a bandwagon of groups that have risen to meet the flood of interest in armchair genealogy and the multitude of people wanting to become History Detectives. What, then, makes one company preferable over another? I began some comparison shopping.
It did not come as a surprise that Ancestry.com’s own testing service came up first in my Internet search. This now privately owned 1.6 billion dollar company is accessed by casual amateurs and licensed genealogists alike, popularly advertised on network television and grows more popular by the day. Their autosomal test tracks “all 23 pairs of chromosomes,” looking at “the entire genome at over 700,000 locations,” as opposed to the 40 locations that the previous testings studied. This test is $99.
The DNA Ancestry Project has tests for paternal or maternal lines ($119), an advanced package 44-marker paternal line test for $199 and advanced maternal test for $189. They have a combined package with a 20-marker Y portion for $238 and one with a 44-marker Y portion for $318. They also advertise a surname project.
Producer of the popular free family history software Family Tree Builder, My Heritage Genealogy also offers the autosome test for a whopping $289. They market their tests as a way to help break through one’s researching “brick wall.” Their MT or 12-marker Y tests are both $99.
National Geographic has their own Genographic Project. They test “nearly 150,000 DNA markers that have been specifically selected to provide unprecedented ancestry-related information” for $199.95.
AncestrybyDNA, with the Groupon coupon, is currently charging $97 instead of $195 for their autosome test of 22 chromosome markers and provides a results manual online. At the time of this writing, 80 people have already bought this deal.
Family Tree DNA boasts of the largest database and currently offers a 12-marker Y test or MT-plus test for $49 “As seen at Who Do You Think You Are – Live!” Their 37-marker male line test is $169; full female marker testing is $199 and “Family Finder Testing” is $99. It is possible to transfer results received from the Ancestry.com test or from 23andMe, another testing company. Family Tree DNA claims to be “the only one to accept autosomal data transfers. Our proprietary matching algorithm matches you against our worldwide database.”
A WIKI page of the International Society of Genetic Genealogy contains a large list of DNA testing companies, including more than those that come up on a keyword search. They also list companies that are no longer in operation. (What became of their customers’ data and support, I wonder?)
Professor Mark Thomas, of University College, London, debunked the entire rage of genetic testing. He said, “it has been reasonably estimated that around 5,000 years ago everybody who was alive was either the common ancestor of everybody alive today, or of nobody alive today; at this point in history we all share exactly the same set of ancestors.
His colleague, Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics, Steve Jones, said in a recent article, “On a long trudge through history – two parents, four great-grandparents, and so on – very soon everyone runs out of ancestors and has to share them.”
In a 2007 report by Yasmin Anwar problems were raised when stakes about racial affiliation were being assessed. Legal issues pertaining to land ownership by tribe, for example, were refuted by DNA testing, but that was later found to be in violation of federal treaty. That the tests point individuals only to four broad racial categories seems quite limited. Someone who has done their research would already know whether their general line was African, European, East Asian or Native American, wouldn’t they? According to Anwar, a co-authored study by members of several institutions pointed out more of the problems. In the case of Africans, they explained that the ancestry information markers “were chosen on the basis of a sample of West Africans. Dark-skinned East Africans might be omitted from the AIMS reference panel of ‘Africans’ because they exhibit different gene variants.”
Terri O’Connell, in an article about her Ancestry.com-tested DNA results, was told that she was “37 percent Scandinavian, which,” she said, “I thought was a little weird. I am Irish, German and Hungarian…On their website, they group together people they think are related to you…I have almost 100 people in this list. It will break it down like, ‘We think you are fourth or fifth cousin.’”
Hmmm. Maybe O’Connell has Norman ancestry that predated the other nationalities that she knows about, but could Ancestry really create a list of almost 100 people who may be related to her, broken down to fourth or fifth cousins? How believable is that? The more I read, the less inclined I am to part with my cash or recommend that someone else does. I know that we have a line of Norman origin and one set of ancestors from France, but at least seven other surnames of our ancestry are solidly southern Irish, so, really, what kind of curve ball could a DNA test actually throw us?
It doesn’t seem that this test would reveal if our Donovan great grandmother’s family was really from Cork, if our great great grandmother Butler was really from Kilkenny or why our great great grandfather Maher had ended up in Laois. Nor would it pinpoint their specific townlands or provide the names of the rest of their families backwards in time. That’s what I want to know!
I think about DNA and hear my mother’s voice in my head saying, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff would you do it too?” So I, who have already invested so much time, energy and money in years of scholarly and genealogical research, begin to waver. Maybe I won’t bother my brother about testing for Y-chromosomes and joining the Meagher project or taking the general autosome test. Maybe knowing that I CAN do the test myself diminishes some of its mystery. But I sure enjoyed talking with him about it and ALMOST going ahead! Then again, what have we got to lose?
©2013 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ní Mheachair
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