Week 15: #52 Ancestors – DNA
By Eilene Lyon
Well into my second year of doing Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks prompts, I’ve struck on one that really has me stymied. The “DNA” prompt just doesn’t bring any particular ancestor or relative to mind.
Should I write about medical issues? Perhaps the latent heart defect that killed my brother at 55, my dad’s uncle at 43, my great-grandmother at 67? The common heredity appears to be the Crandall line.
When a Crandall, who had been given up for adoption, contacted me, I mentioned this family trait. He replied he’d had a heart attack at 45. I told him he was lucky to be alive. I suppose that was indelicate of me, but I’m in the same genetic boat, so to speak. Lucky to be alive, I am.
I did my autosomal DNA test with Ancestry.com in October 2015, with the intention of writing about it in my family newsletter to encourage my relatives to test. I found nothing unexpected in the initial results. European, mostly western. Matches include Springers, Ormes, Gussos, Davises, etc.
But, I am astonished at just how many matches this test turned up. My latest count is more than 35,000!
I discovered that beyond the 3rd– or 4th-cousin level, false positives are common – up to a 50% chance the match isn’t really a match. Some relatives who I know are 4th or 5th cousins either do not show up at all or are so far down the list I have to search for them by user name.
Since I’m fortunate both my parents are still living, I had them tested, as well as my uncle (Dad’s brother). My mom has a sister who has not tested. My younger brother did a Y-DNA test with FamilyTreeDNA, at my behest. Two or three years later, he still has no close matches.
After these results had “fermented” for a couple years, I realized something was amiss in my family tree. Based on many new matches, I discovered entirely new branches, which means others turned out to be fictional – strictly on paper, not in my genes.
I’ve learned these types of surprises happen frequently, and this raises a whole host of other questions. Not the least is, “Who should know about this?”
Let’s face it, I tested my family to learn more about my genealogy. They willingly participated, but that doesn’t mean they have the same interest in the results as I do.
What about privacy issues? Well that’s a whole other kettle of beans, and the discussion grows every day. Law enforcement agencies consult GedMatch.com to solve crimes. Do I want my DNA being used for serious cold cases? If I could be certain there were no false positives, it seems a legitimate use for the technology. But there are false positives, which gives me pause.
When I read the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I realized that it may come to pass that our DNA could be used without our consent. That we may not even own our unique genetic code. How might our test results be used against us?
Dick Eastman recently brought up the case for anonymity of sperm donors. Are their offspring entitled to know their genetic father’s identity? Did the donors have a realistic expectation they would remain eternally anonymous?
As far as adoptees go, I have been – and continue to be – willing to help them learn who their biological parents may be. It’s possible we will come up with answers if they have very close matches who will share information. It’s also possible we will never know.
One thing I have decided: taking a DNA test requires more than just simple consent. Any person taking a DNA test needs to seriously consider the complications that may arise.
There are mysteries in my research I know can only be solved by genetic testing. However, I am no longer willing to ask a relative to submit a sample merely for purposes of satisfying my curiosity. Not knowing the whole truth is an acceptable outcome.