Many folks in the Genetic Genealogy community tuned in to see how "60 Minutes" would handle DNA testing for genealogy in their segment: "Reconstructing the Family Tree". Overall, the reaction ranged from disappointment to outrage, but with generally positive comments about the first segment - the West family story.
In case you are interested, here's a link to the 60 Minutes segment: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/10/05/60minutes/main3334427.shtml
Here are our thoughts:
In reading through the story of Vy Higgensen and Marion West and their paternal surname ancestral match, I didn't pick up on any misstatements or distortions. This was a dramatized story, carefully selected for maximum impact. All of us who have been involved with using DNA to find our genetic families have a similar story to tell - and we're very pleased for Vy and Marion - and for all of others with dramatic success stories! (The testing was done by FTDNA, the leading testing company for using DNA in genealogy - where orders increased sharply on Sunday and are continuing at a higher than normal pace today)
The rest of the story? ... Most of us find genetic cousins who are "more expected" and not as dramatic. Many of us are fortunate and find matches that help us break down our brick walls - to truly learn more about our ancestry. And, some are still waiting for a useful match - or any match at all.
From what we've seen, most folks will gain some knowledge immediately; most will gain even more over time. Rarely will anyone learn as much as they want to know - as DNA testing cannot
identify a specific ancestor by name. In fact, most of our learning comes from the examination of the paper trails of those we match.
In this first segment, 60 Minutes biggest failure was the lack of a story that emphasized how the paper trails are a critical part of "Reconstructing the Family Tree".
On the segment focused on "African Ancestry", there was a big discussion about how many ancestors each of us has and how little of our ancestry is covered by one test. A law professor criticized the genetic genealogy testing companies for not adequately explaining the limitations of a test.
The rest of the story? ... Too many folks order a DNA test without understanding how it works. (But they are only a small portion of the total) The info is there to explain the limits of DNA testing and how it really works, at least at the reputable testing companies, but it is hard for some folks to take in all of the information that exists. Most
folks do understand well enough to order the right test to focus on a specific part of their ancestry, but some don't.
If you have any doubts or questions, ask your surname project administrator for guidance. (Or ask someone at one of the testing companies listed below) We think this issue was blown out of proportion in the 60 Minutes report.
The segment continued with a comparison of the predictions from several testing companies about which the tribe Vy's ancestors came from. Each testing company gave a related, but somewhat different answer and the law professor again was sharply critical - particularly of the idea that a DNA test can tell you which tribe you come from.
The rest of the story? ... We actually agree with the lawyer on a key point! It is not possible to consistently and accurately predict the one tribe that a person came from.
We feel that the folks who claim they can tell you which tribe you descend from - or the percentage of your ancestry that comes from a particular part of the world - aren't able to fully deliver. 60 Minutes failed to specifically focus on the company making the inflated claim, but instead, let their criticism be pointed at all of the testing companies.
On a broader note, we have to ask: With all of the knowledge and expertise that was available - why did 60 Minutes need to ask a lawyer about these differences? This is probably the least responsible part of the segment. Had they asked the experienced project administrators and others who work seriously with genetic genealogy, they would have heard how similar the answers are - within the context of what you can actually do with this testing. And, they would have also heard doubt about claims that a test can tell you which single tribe you come from.
In reality, mtDNA testing will give you a profile of your maternal ancestral heritage - which is not particularly precise. The low resolution test will give you matches that are "50% likely" to be within the past 1300 years and the high resolution test will give you matches that are "50% likely" to be within the past 700 years. So, if you come from a tribe that hasn't mixed with the others in Africa (or where ever your tribe is from) for 1-2-3000 years, you may get a result that has a high probablity of being from one tribe. However, if there has been any mixing of tribes (which will be true for most of us - and for most whose ancestors came from Africa), the area where your matches can be found will be wider than one tribe - as was the case for Vy.
Bottom Line: don't use the 60 Minutes story as a useful insight into how DNA can be used for genealogy or for insight into what the key issues are - or for where you should be careful.
We think their message should have been on how you can be successful in "Reconstructing the Family Tree". We recommend that you test a male representative for your surname and compare his results with known representatives of the other families in the surname that you expect to match - and to not match. And - you should be comparing the paper trails to determine what the matches (and non-matches) are telling you. (And, we think they should have made it clear that you will DNA test a different male family representative for each of your ancestral surnames that you are researching)
We would give 60 Minutes an "F" if their goal was to help you in "Reconstructing the Family Tree".
If you want more information, contact your surname project administrator or one of the firms we have seen provide reputable, consistent and responsible results. These are Family Tree DNA, Ethno Ancestry, Relative Genetics (just bought out by DNA Ancestry), and DNA Heritage.
If the company you are considering isn't included in the above short list
, ask someone who has been involved with DNA testing for a while for their opinion - before you spend your hard earned money.
And - if you are hearing promises that sound too good to be true from a company that isn't listed above - it probably is too good to be true!