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Should We Include DNA Results in Family Stories? - Treasure Chest of Memories

Should we include DNA results in Family Stories a graphic with family photos and double helix

Should family historians and memory collectors include DNA results in family stories?

Back in 2019 I published Do DNA results Help You Discover Family Stories?, opining that DNA stories are not the same as family stories but they can augment them.

That’s still true. Biological facts miss things like the whys and the hows of events and the memories that span lifetimes.

It’s also true, however, that people incorporate DNA results in their family or ancestral identity. So why not include them in narratives?

How to include DNA Results in Family Stories

Many people test their DNA to see their ethnicity estimate only (as those of us who send countless “Hi I think we might be cousins…” emails to unresponsive strangers know). It might be the lark of trading in their kilt for lederhosen or the novelty or seeing the diversity of their roots. Maybe their curiosity doesn’t go any further than that.

A New Genetics and Society study looked at what drives some people to find our biological origins more than others. They found that

GAT [genetic ancestry testing] interest is concentrated in the third-or-later generations… with first- and second-generation respondents having less interest in GAT.… this pattern is a consequence of the extent to which one feels certain or uncertain about their family origins—what we term “ancestral certainty.” [1]

The takeaway: The less confidence a person has about their origins, the more valuable DNA test results are to their journey of understanding of their family identity. Likewise, the more surprising the genetic information is, the more likely we are to want to incorporate it—and use the images of ethnicity estimate—in stories.

But here’s the challenge.

Ethnicity estimates are aptly named. They are estimates, subject to change as DNA companies refine their databases and methodologies. [2]  (Follow footnote to read more about this at Blaine Bettinger’s site, TheGeneticGenealogist.com.)

That’s not to say we shouldn’t use them. However, we need to understand and explain their reliability and what they do and do not tell us.

For instance, my 2017 article Am I Really 37% Irish really needs an update. My AncestryDNA estimates have changed quite a bit in the last five years, taking my Irish bragging rights from 37% down to 4%.

A comparison of 2014 and 2021 AncestryDNA ethnicity estimates

That’s a story I’m looking forward to exploring further.

Diahan Southard, author of The DNA Guide (and my idol for her ability to uncomplicate convoluted science), points out that ethnicity estimates aren’t the only way to use DNA results in family stories. In her article, Add DNA Stories to Your Family History, she suggests adding data about haplogroups, ancient origins, as well as reunions and new relationships that rise from DNA testing.

 

How to use DNA Results to Complete the Family Story

Often DNA results surprise us (in a good way). Perhaps the Irish and Italian percentages make sense, but there’s a chunk of French ancestry that causes some head scratching. We’re curious. Open to exploring new chapters.

The aforementioned The DNA Guide helps make sense of the questions arising from DNA results.

Another great guide comes from FamilyLocket.com: Research Like a Pro with DNA: A Genealogist’s Guide to Finding and Confirming Ancestors with DNA Evidence by Diana Elder, Nicole Dyer, and Robin Wirthlin. Though it may be more in depth than the average family storyteller needs, it has comprehensive information on how to digest DNA reports and use them to form research questions.

Co-Author Diana Elder points out that the chapter on ethnicity and locality can help family provide context to family stories by elucidating the places family members immigrated from. This way, DNA results can enhance the meaningfulness and impact of narratives.

Ethical Dilemmas of DNA Stories

The authors of Research Like a Pro with DNA  advise caution when including DNA results in family stories or even in emails to distant cousins. They, like most in the industry, strongly recommend getting express permission from individuals before sharing their DNA information.

But what about DNA results that are disconcerting, even traumatic?

Unfortunately, because of shared genetic materials, newly revealed information may be exactly the facts that other living people want kept secret.

How do we start down the path of sharing secrets our ancestors never anticipated us knowing? It’s hard. Who’s story is it when a son discovers the man who raised him is not his father? It’s hard to process, much less figure out whether to share it or include it in family narratives.

What if it’s one generation removed? Do we keep the secrets of previous generations as well?

Though each of us will have to make the ethical call ourselves, Diahan Southard offers some help in Handling Unexpected DNA Connections. She suggests an ethnical litmus test of ourselves as someone who stumbles upon information (Discoverer) versus someone who should be the disseminator or not (the Keeper).

The Internet offers a plethora of other articles about DNA testing and ethics, most directed at clinicians or professionals genealogists providing information to clients about their DNA test results. (The Legal Genealogist summaries and excerpts many of these in her post Ethical Guidance.)

Reading through them, a few things stood out to me. Most are advising to 1) do no harm, 2) be kind, and 3) promote understanding rather than embarrassment.

Your Turn

Do you plan to include DNA results in your family stories? Have you already? What advice would you offer to others? What pitfalls did you discover? I would love to read your perspective in the comments below.

Note: This post does not contain affiliate links.

[1] Adam L. Horowitz, Aliya Saperstein, Jasmine Little, Martin Maiers & Jill A. Hollenbach (2019) Consumer (dis-)interest in genetic ancestry testing: the roles of race, immigration, and ancestral certainty, New Genetics and Society, 38:2, 165-194, DOI: 10.1080/14636778.2018.1562327

[2] Blaine Bettinger, “AncestryDNA Revises Ethnicity Estimates,” TheGeneticGenealogist.com, September 12, 2018, https://thegeneticgenealogist.com/2018/09/12/ancestrydna-3/.

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