Unintended Consequences

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.

Memoir 001
My older brother, Steve, holding me as a baby.

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.

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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?

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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.

 

Puzzle pieces photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

Lab test photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash

33 thoughts on “Unintended Consequences

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  1. It annoys me that advertisements for DNA testing companies are all about finding where you come from but they don’t warn you that you may find your Dad is not your Dad. Thousands of people are finding that fact without suspecting anything beforehand. I know because I was one, but I’m lucky that those involved have all passed on and the new relatives have been very supportive. For me, it has been a positive experience but for so many people it has been a personal disaster.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That had to be a tremendous shock if you had no idea of such an outcome beforehand. I really don’t think enough people think about this possibility before testing. I certainly didn’t. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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      1. One of my friends knew her father was adopted. After he passed she did her dna. Then she found out about all these relatives. She was good with it, but her brothers didn’t want to know anything about it

        Liked by 1 person

  2. You have raised a lot of good questions here. I just listened on CBC radio yesterday to a genealogist who was talking about the inaccuracies in some of the DNA tests. So interesting, and scary.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. DNA research has been a constant moral dilemma, and now that the general public has access to all this information, it is becoming an even much more complicated issue. Your post is an eye opener, Eilene, of what an innocent request or well intentioned Christmas gift might bring to light.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A thought provoking post Eilene, two sides to the coin. False positives plus unethical/unauthorised use of the results. Both are legitimate issues you raise and, despite taking an autosomal test myself, issues I have been concerned about too. So why did I take the test? It certainly wasn’t to identify thousands of possible cousins that have been listed, because I can think of nothing that goes more beyond my introvert nature than to be contacted by someone who says “hi, I think we are related, 5th cousins and n times removed, shall we meet!” I know, I’m a cynical cold fish! Equally I considered the unauthorised use of my data and thought why bother, I’ve been branded a right wing fascist, racist, misogynist who is also a white supremacist just because I voted to leave the EU, there’s not much else to throw at me! No, I took the test because I was interested in my ethnicity results to share with my wife and daughter. My wife knows she is 100% Newar caste from Nepal, Kathmandu Valley, so I thought it would be nice for my daughter to have some data on the other half in her mix. And now she knows!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bandying a lot of labels there, Dr. B! Surely you’re not so horrible as that. 😉 I, too, am an introvert, but meeting cousins has actually been quite rewarding. That said, I don’t think I want to meet thousands of them!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha ha, none of those labels fit me at all, but in our country people who voted for Brexit have been called those names at various times. It’s laughable, but also serious because it was the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, Sir Vince Cable, who actually labelled us all as White Supremacists in a speech he made. Quite how my brown skinned, Asian origin, Newar caste, Buddhist wife fits that particular label is beyond me. But we have a lot of fun using those labels to describe ourselves! Well, as far as introversion goes I am off the scale because I don’t want to meet ANY lost cousins. In fact I knew from a while ago that my dad had been married previously before he married my mother and subsequently after their divorce …… and I have two half-sisters. But I don’t feel the need to meet them either!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, it’s better to just laugh about it all. One of the things I enjoy about genealogy is the fact that the people I’m generally dealing with are dead. They’re so easy to get along with!

        Liked by 2 people

  5. I just had my DNA test done with the leading genealogy site and so far I am pleased. Two 3rd cousins contacted me and I can tell by their references, it is legit. They did not ask to meet..just gave me their email or I can contact them through the site, if I wish.

    When I was young I didn’t ask nearly enough questions and my reason for doing the test is to find out more and my makeup heritage. There was one small surprise…a good one.

    Also I believe I’m related distantly to our 44th president and I was trying to confirm that. It’s a 90% chance of being true. I would be thrilled if so.

    I find it interesting and enjoyable to check it all out…I’m not concerned about some nefarious use of my DNA. But the fact that you had so many false readings is a concern. It does make you wonder just how accurate these tests are.

    Also I love “Finding your Roots” on PBS. Now if I could afford that type of research!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t have any way of determining just how many false matches I have, but I’m certain the more distant the cousin, the less likely there is a true match.

      I’m glad you have had good experiences with research using DNA. I have had good experiences as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The question of ownership is fascinating. I had heard a RadioLab podcast recently where they explored an angle of body-parts ownership through the story of a lung transplant. Who owns it, especially while in transition? Out of that cam some odd property-rights concepts I’d never heard about before, with regards to what we own and what we don’t own.

    This is a link to the episode. The section of the transplant starts around 3:15, but the ownership stuff really gets going at around the 9-minute mark. You ask really good questions and I suspect a lot of people getting their DNA tested haven’t thought about the long-term consequences of releasing their DNA into what feels like a “public” pool. Or certainly a pool that will be available to police, government and (probably) companies looking to hire, insure, etc. I’m both intrigued with getting my own information and squeamish about privacy issues. Tanks for writing. And…you did GREAT with the prompt!

    https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/asking-friend

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds like quite an intriguing premise with the body parts. I doubt the person donating a heart will have any claim to it of they are dead when it gets removed, but a kidney would be a different matter. Thanks for adding the link. I’ll check it out.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I am not a fan of DNA testing for genealogy purposes. The science is sketchy at best and needs much development. It tends to “prove” relationships that don’t exists. Nothing beats old fashioned hard work and research (in my opinion). I most definitely do NOT want my DNA on a national data base for any reason. I value what little privacy we still have.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m reading this in a state of shock…you see, my husband’s paternal line has a heart issue that killed his grandfather at age 46 and almost did the same to his father and several uncles. His father received an lvad in January (his condition is fair to middling). My husband is being monitored for the same condition.
    Here is the strange part…his paternal line traces back to Crandall! I have to check my records again…is it the same line as your Crandall line? I wonder…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with such a tragic recurring issue. The Crandall line I belong to is quite widespread, because it dates back to Elder John Crandall of Westerly, Rhode Island circa 1641.

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      1. Wow. I did not know if the problem may have stemmed off to some other line back in time, but it seems not. I hope your husband and family do not suffer for it. Obviously many in the Crandall line don’t have this trouble.

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