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Genetic Genealogy & the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS)

Using DNA to find your family heritage has become an everyday topic of conversation. If you haven’t personally sent a saliva sample in the mail, you know someone who has. And you can barely miss a day without seeing a commercial from Ancestry or My Heritage advertising one of its DNA products. Just a few weeks ago the TV news magazine, “60 Minutes,” did a story on the genealogist who is helping police forces around the country solve decades-old cold cases through the use of DNA and conventional genealogical methods.

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If DNA testing has become commonplace for the criminologists and the general public, what do professional genealogists have to say about its uses and its appropriate uses?  You can find the answers in Chapter 16 of Professional Genealogy: Preparation, Practice & Standards, edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills. This chapter, “Genetics for Genealogy,” written by Blaine T. Bettinger  and Judy G. Russell, provides clear, graphic guidance on the uses of DNA for genealogy in general and the professional and ethical implications it has for serious genealogists working for clients. The following essay, “Ethical Considerations & DNA Testing,” is extracted from PP. 383-385 of Chapter 16.

Ethical Considerations & DNA Testing

“Our field’s gold standard for proving any genealogical assertion is the Genealogical Proof Standard. (See chapter 1.) Its first criteria is reasonably exhaustive research-the goal of which is to ensure “examination of all potentially relevant sources” and thereby minimize “the risk that undiscovered evidence will overturn a too-hasty conclusion. DNA evidence has become integral to the application  of this standard, so much so that in 2014 the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, “for the first time deferred accepting a paper because the author’s conclusion seemed to need DNA-test support.” Outside of scholarly journals, lineage societies now accept well-interpreted DNA evidence as part of an applicant s proof argument supporting identity or kinship. For all researchers, DNA has become a key element in the analysis and correlation of evidence by which we reach soundly reasoned conclusions based on the strongest available evidence.

As explained in the manual Genealogy Standards:

Thorough research gathers sufficient data to test–and to support or reject-hypotheses concerning identities, relationships, events, and situations. Acquiring sufficient data may require broadening the research beyond the person, family, event, or situation in question. Thorough research attempts to gather all reliable information potentially relevant to the research question, including evidence items conflicting or consistent with other evidence items. Thorough research, therefore, aims to consult all potentially relevant sources. It emphasizes original records containing primary information, which may be used as direct, indirect, or negative evidence.

Several of the eighty-three standards set forth in that manual  explicitly invoke the use of DNA evidence:

  • Standard 12 : Context. “When planning research, genealogists consider…genetic...and other factors that could affect the research plan and scope.
  • Standard 14: Scope of research. “Genealogists plan to consult … DNA” among a litany of other  essential sources.
  • Standard 57: Assembling research. The genealogist will “provide sufficient background information for readers to understand both what an information item says and what it means in the context of each source’s place and time [including contextual] concepts from genetics.”

Clearly DNA test results provide that “reliable information potentially relevant to the research question, including evidence items conflicting or consistent with other evidence items .” DNA test reports are, thus, among the types of “high quality sourcesthat can offer strong protection against too hasty conclusions. They should be considered, regularly and routinely, in developing and executing a research plan.

To say that DNA testing should be considered, however, does not mean it is always required. The utility and practicality of DNA testing will depend on the specific facts of the specific case, and “not every case requires genetic results, … just as some cases need no land or military records.”

In some cases, DNA testing cannot contribute to solving the particular genealogical question. As examples:

  • If the question involves identifying a male ancestor in a distant generation and there is no candidate.descendant in the direct male line of descent to test, then Y-DNA testing is futile.
  • If the question involves identifying a female ancestor in a distant generation and there is no candidate descendant in a direct female line of descent, then mitochondrial DNA testing will not help.
  • If it is not possible to obtain the cooperation of other persons whose test results are needed, then DNA testing might be impossible.
  • If an appropriate candidate can be located, but that candidate’s informed consent to testing cannot be guaranteed or obtained, then DNA testing might not be possible.
  • If the problem requires testing a broad number of individuals, it may be prohibitively expensive.

In short, reasonably exhaustive research does not mean turning over every stone beneath which evidence conceivably could be found . To quote one leading authority: “Studying a nearly infinite number of genealogical sources…is impractical….Convenience, expertise, financing, location, or practical concerns may limit (a research) plan’s scope.” This holds true with genetic evidence as much as it does with documentary evidence.

Perhaps most importantly, DNA evidence alone rarely can answer even the simplest genealogical question . Like all other forms of evidence  that may be used as part of a proof argument, it is merely one piece of the  genealogical puzzle. It does not replace traditional paper-trail research. It  is, rather, an additional source of evidence and an additional tool to consider. Genealogical proof cannot and does not rest on any single piece of evidence, even when that evidence is DNA test results.

Whether DNA evidence should be part of a proof argument  depends on the specific facts of each particular case. As genealogists, we might look at military enlistment or pension records for evidence of a marriage in a jurisdiction where marriage records do not exist–or where they have been destroyed. So, too, when genetic evidence is unavailable or unavailing in   a specific situation, we will look at alternative sources and methods for records-based evidence.

Where DNA evidence is both available and relevant, however, we should not fail to consider the potential it can contribute to a sound conclusion.  To do so would fall short of meeting the ethical obligations we have as professional genealogists–that is, to ‘promote a  coherent, truthful approach to genealogy, family history and local history.

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