DNA Testing

I was asked several questions relative to DNA testing by someone who was just starting to work on her family history.

Like many people, she purchased a DNA test and anxiously awaited the results. Like many people, she was disappointed with what the test revealed.

She was disappointed because she expected to learn who her great-grandparents were. She was disappointed because she was expecting to see all of her Italian heritage (this is what she was told growing up).

She was disappointed because the DNA test left her knowing less than when she began and had, in fact, introduced a host of new questions to a family history situation where answers were already lacking.

She is “normal”. I hear more about her type of experience with DNA testing than most others.

Now, I’m not being mean here. I’m just being truthful.

Her DNA testing experience is really the fault of bad marketing, awful assumptions and unrealistic expectations.

The bad marketing comes from DNA testing firms who push out splashy commercials that build the expectation of answers and connections that come from DNA testing.

No, they aren’t exactly lying. Some really do find answers and make connections from DNA testing. But those answers don’t come from the DNA test themselves. They come from using the DNA test as a tool combined with traditional family sleuthing.

Those kinds of results take time, work and, in no small measure, luck.

~ My DNA Experience ~

It was about two years ago that I shared via these pages that I was jumping into the DNA pool, too. I bought a test, I got the results and I’ve said almost nothing more about it.

Why? It’s because I’m not normal.

As I stated before I took the test, I already knew my ancestry. Like everyone, I have holes in my family tree and I was hoping my DNA test would point to some answers.

It didn’t tell me anything I did not already know. My DNA test, in fact, confirmed what I knew: my ancestry hails from Eastern Europe.

One of the things taking a DNA promised me was connection with others who share my DNA.

This is where I had my greatest hopes. Like many others I was hoping to find a cousin or someone out there who might have more information than I do about our family lines.

Over two years and no less than 64,493 DNA matches later, I can report that my DNA testing has reported in zero new information about my ancestry.

There are three simple reasons why: my own lack of work, the lack of family history information available from my DNA matches, and the complexity of what DNA testing really is and what it can do.

Let’s examine all three of those reasons.

My own lack of work: getting my DNA test results back revealed a whole new level of work awaiting me when it comes to family history.

The idea is that your test results will show you how “much” of a DNA match you are with another person. As more and more people take and submit DNA test, so too will grow the number of “matches” you have. Right now, my number is more than 64,000 people.

The complexity comes from how MUCH of a DNA match you are and if you can actually reach these people. A lot of people take tests but very few ever respond to contact from one of their matches.

There are many reasons for this and almost none of them have to do with family secrets or nefarious family history. It has more to do with the fact that buying a test, spitting in a tube and mailing it off is really, really easy to do.

But actually getting onto Ancestry.com and using that site is nigh on impossible for most people. The Church says that less than 2% of members are active in family history. If the Church can only draw 2% what do you think Ancestry can do with people who buy their tests?

This is important to understand. As I go through my matches on Ancestry.com I can see their names and a link to their “family tree” on Ancestry.

99% or better of my matches don’t have a family tree on Ancestry because they aren’t family historians or have never bothered to put or work a tree on Ancestry. They are, quite literally, a blank page.

Then, when you contact them to say, “Hey, we share DNA”, they never get the message because…they are never on Ancestry.com to check their messages.

Therefore, if you have a strong DNA match you did not previously know about you are left to alternative methods of contacting them. And that takes work – a lot of work. From scoping them out on social media to contacting others who might know them, the mystery of a live DNA match is sometimes actually more difficult than finding anyone who is dead.

Reason #2, the lack of family history info: my DNA matches didn’t have any family history information I didn’t already know.

If you are lucky enough to actually make contact with a DNA match more often than not you will find a person who knows less than you do. At least that was my experience. Sometimes this is because a match is much younger and sometimes it is because their own family circumstance has left them with little or nothing to go on.

This isn’t always the case, of course, and I’ve heard stories of people who have paired up with a DNA match and walked away with all kinds of new family history treasures.

It happens. It just hasn’t happened to me – or a lot of people I know and have worked with.

I will say this: there is great value in making those connections and sharing everything you know with your new DNA friends and family. It may take a while but most will very excitedly share something new they learn the minute they learn it. So those connections are still very valuable.

But it was reason #3 that DNA testing has yielded so far very little for me: it is just so dang complex.

~ The Complexity of DNA Family History Research ~

For as easy as they make it to buy and test and get it processed they cannot make understanding the science of DNA easy.

You just have to take the painful path of educating yourself about DNA. This is likely the biggest hurdle for even the most experienced family historians to overcome. It takes time, a lot of patience, a lot of attending classes and talking to experts, and likely a level of brains many of us won’t claim to having in order to really get DNA stuff.

Understanding what DNA tests do and cannot do is really important.

First there are the kinds of DNA tests you can take. These are important depending upon the maternal or paternal lines you are researching. Testing types matter. You gotta learn about them.

Second, there is an art and a science to determining what your DNA test results mean. That will require you to research things like Chromosome mapping and changing ethnicity results.

Third, and I think this is most important, DNA can be useful with determining genealogy. But it can’t do much of anything about your family history.

~ What’s the difference? ~

The difference is this: DNA is cold, hard science. Using its data can lead you to people – maybe — and those people can lead you to just more data – maybe names, maybe dates, maybe places, etc. But it can never tell the family story.

Family history is your family story. Doing genealogy, getting DNA tested, connecting with other possible family members is all just the start of doing your family history. Family history goes beyond the data. It gets to the heart – to the story of your family.

Despite my lack of results with DNA I would whole heartedly recommend that everyone do DNA testing and to make those results public. I would also recommend making a family tree on Ancestry and making all that information public as well. I would recommend, as much as possible, that you are active on social media and sharing your family history treasures as well as your challenges.

In my view, there is never a reason to ever withhold or keep private family history data. At least for the dead (the living are a different story).

As time has marched on – it’s been two years now – I’m seeing more and more new contacts in my DNA match list. It will take me time and a lot of work to plow through it all. But within it I feel I can find new directions in solving our mysteries.

My mother’s family is still largely unknown to me. They had few family historians for me to draw on to learn the real story of history behind the names of my mother’s family.

DNA gives me hope. And it provides me with ever new clues and possible contacts. That alone makes the price of testing worth it.

Jeff Westover
Jeff Westover

Husband, father, Latter-day Saint, 11th generation American, and web geek currently residing in Smithfield, Utah. Please visit my website at JeffWestover.com

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