Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The PT Barnum Affect: Y And mtDNA Testing?

Prof. Mark Thomas' doesn't agree with such maps

I listened to a presentation by the Population Geneticist Mark Thomas this past weekend. The presentation was from the "Who Do You Think You Are?" the live event, "Ancestry Testing Using DNA: the pros and cons." Prof. Thomas did bring up some great points about some of the unscrupulous practices being employed to sell test kits. I think it's great to educate the public regarding what can and can't confidently be established using DNA testing.

I believe that fairly accurate information about the origins of Haplogroups is being presented by companies like Family Tree DNA. I think these predictions will just get better in the years to come. The Professor stated he felt the full sequence autosomal DNA test would provide more accurate information about the origins of our ancestors. He doesn't feel like the mtDNA or Y DNA results provide accurate information about the origins of populations. He seems to question the whole idea of Haplogroups? There is controversy in the academic community regarding what can and can't be proven regarding dating population migrations and the origins of Haplogroups.

This presentation was aimed at a UK audience and I don't know what the marketing for the testing is like there? Or the reasons the average person would decide to test? I don't think the descriptions below regarding the reasons for testing would apply to most of us in the US. Many people are interested in establishing a relationship to a famous person, everywhere. I'm skeptical about the other motives listed below. I feel like all of the reasons are stereotypes and hurt the reputation of genetic genealogists. What should be stated, instead of using insulting stereotypes, is that it's this scientists opinion that ancient origins in a particular area can't be proven using Y and mtDNA.

Prof. Thomas Mark's reasons why people "indulge" in interpretive phylogeography:
  1. the desire to say somebody is the descendant of some ancient king, princess, warrior or famous person
  2. the desire to mould a population's history or individual's ancestry back to some nationalist agenda  
  3. the desire to make spectacular claims about population history / human evolution  
  4. The Forer effect/ Barnum effect Explains the popularity of horoscopes etc

My own interest in DNA testing using the Y and mtDNA tests has generally been for reasons sanctioned by the Prof. Mark Thomas, comparing markers with cousins. I'm also interested establishing the origins of the surnames Forgey and Kapple. I know our Forgey family was Scots-Irish, which has been established using DNA and traditional genealogy research. A journal states the family was in Ulster during a particular uprising, and it was stated in the same journal the ancestor knew the words to a ballad about the uprising. There are factions in the family which believe Forgey is a French name brought to Scotland by the Normans. My opinion is it's a variant of Ferguson and isn't a Norman name. In this case I'm looking to Y DNA to prove the family was in Scotland before the Normans. In the case of my Kapple /Koppel surname everyone felt it was an Ashkenazi name, the family looks Ashkenazi and knew some Yiddish. So far the autosomal testing isn't showing any of that admixture? Our Y testing is showing a J2b haplogroup. Our family was Catholic for 200 years and existing records can't help us to go back any further. In these cases I'm looking to prove, or disprove family stories, with the help of Y and mtDNA. I believe this should be possible.

Many adoptees in the US have no information about their family's ethnic origins. Using Y and mtDNA testing can be very helpful for them. The descendants of former slaves would like to reclaim their stolen heritage.

There are valid reasons for pursuing the origins of haplogroups when it comes to genetic genealogy. Academic stereotyping, and condescension, hurts the reputation of those who are pursuing the subject based on valid intellectual curiosity.

Prof. Mark Thomas stated, why would it be important to establish the origins of one or two lines when everyone in Europe is related not so long ago? Everyone in Europe is Viking etc., etc.  I'm not interested in establishing the origins of every line. I'm interested in my maternal and paternal family surnames. It sounds like many in Europe are looking for the villages or migration patterns of their families, and linking rare surnames to particular areas. Reading many papers about the subject of locating origins using Y and mtDNA I realize we have a ways to go when it comes to establishing these connections with a high degree of confidence.

I think the academic community would rather not see genealogists affiliate themselves with population genetics. I believe some members of that community are out of touch when it comes to the goals of the average genealogist. There is much handwringing in that community about dark ulterior motives when it comes to testing for ethnicity.

There is a valid criticism of the lack of scientific backing for claims made by testing companies. I agree, and would like to see more papers on the subject containing evidence for claims made by all of these companies. I'm not against critical review, but I'm against stereotyping and blanket comments about the motives for testing. Calling DNA testing Astrology gets a lot of attention in the press, and is a good strategy for getting attention, but it has been used to discredit the valid uses of DNA for genealogy, whether that is what Prof. Mark Thomas intended this or not, this terminology has been used to discredit the entire genetic genealogy community. I would just like to see a more respectful debate. It would be great to see critics of the ancestry testing companies, and company representatives on stage at a conference debating all of this.


Juanita Paull said...

Totally agree - My family and I are simply testing to find out more about who we are - no ulterior motives. We have connect with cousins across the world, found the parents of adopted family members, and traced our direct surname line even further with a FTDNA Project.
Great article -keep up the good work.

Annette said...

Thank you very much Juanita for the nice comment! I think the FTDNA Project is very reputable.