Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Evolution, DNA, and Genealogy

Today, for not much over a hundred bucks, you can get a DNA test that will reveal the secrets of where your family came from in a broad general sense.  It can reveal other secrets, like hidden genetic illnesses and such as well.

I am sorely tempted to take the plunge.

But there is a word of caution for the faint of heart.  Watch out for what you are asking, the answers may not reveal what you think.  I am reminded here of the white supremacist recently who discovered that one of his great, great grandparents was black.  Cherished family history stories may turn out to be just that - stories!

Not that I would be terribly disappointed.  To me, the most disappointing would be to turn out to have a perfectly vanilla family history with NO surprises.  I'd almost love to see an odd twist here or there.

Genealogy is fun and interesting.  Here are a couple of things about human genealogy you may not know.

To the human race as a whole, you are merely a repository of DNA.  Your purpose is to replicate that DNA in the person of your kids to ensure the continuation of the species.  The physical manner of how this works is fascinating.  You have two parents, four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents.  Each generation back, in essence, doubles the number of humans who contributed to your DNA.


Assuming 40 years per generation, going back 1000 years, if you are from Europe, you are related to over 34 million people, which is over 90% of the population of Europe at the time!

Which kind of illustrates how mixed up and varied your DNA history might be.  Europe was a hotbed of migrations, wars, invasions and other population mixing and destabilizing influences, and the centuries after 1000 CE were not the most stable from a political standpoint.

Most Americans don't record much family history.  Records of individuals are spotty going back as little as a hundred years.  Back then, many people weren't literate, and going back a mere hundred more, MOST people could not read, at least not much.  The US has census records going back to the 18th century (late), but those early records didn't have much on kids' names, only parents, and where they did, they only recorded male names.  Girls weren't important, and really only kids over five were given a name anyway, given the high infant mortality rates.  Since literacy wasn't widespread, spelling wasn't standardized, names were often misspelled, or spelled differently from census to census or on other government or church records.

So, documenting birth and death records was spotty, and finding the ones that were kept is not easy today, even with the internet.  Finding out much more than that is even harder. 

So the fact that our family records document one line of our family going back to the late 17th century is kind of cool!  That's in Germany, if you are curious.
So, yes, I am interested in getting the DNA test done, if only to see what other information may lurk in there to inform and direct my future genealogical searches.

But, to all of you out there, what I want to say is this.

Keep records.  Write down stories.  Tell your kids about your parents, your siblings, your aunts and uncles and cousins.  Family history is all about who we are.  What we did, where we lived and how we made our way through life.

It's all about people like my Aunt Daisy, who had (supposedly) five husbands and never would ride over a bridge in one of those new fangled motor cars.  Or Gandpa Bob (my great grandfather) who was a 32nd degree Mason and was so superstitious, he'd go blocks out of his way to avoid the path of a black cat that had crossed his!  Or my father, who once broke his leg trying to impress a girl with how he could emulate the carnival's human fly climbing the brick wall of the local hardware store.

We all have our stories, and those stories make up our family history.

Don't let them get lost.  Record them, remember the people, remember their stories.  Record the details, and pass them on.

These days, it isn't hard.

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