Sunday, 5 August 2018

Genetic Genealogy is different

It has been more than a year since I received notification of the results of my Autosomal-DNA (Family Finder) test. In all that time, I have not really engaged with the data it provides. I have carried out all the mechanical tasks - provided lists of family surnames and places, downloaded the raw data file, created a direct line GEDCOM, and uploaded all these to the appropriate comparison sites.

But I have never really set out to find what I can learn from this rich new source. At first, there were other pressing tasks that needed to be cleared away before I could devote the time that this new area of investigation demands. Then more and more activities were assigned a higher priority than a study of my DNA. All the while, the number of suggestions for further investigation grew and grew. Finally, I have had to admit that I have been avoiding the task. What was it that I was hiding from?

I am sure that I not concerned by what I might find; the block is far more deep-seated than that. When I investigate a branch of my family, I am seeking great, great ... grandparents but this new tool offers me nothing but cousins. Instead of ancestors, it presents me with potential research collaborators. When the bulk of my research involves people who are (let's be blunt) dead and unthreatening, the promise (or threat) of genetic genealogy is lots of contacts who are very much alive and may want to "share" or even "catch up".

I have failed to find a school report that explicitly stated "Robert does not play well with others" but it would have been a fair description of my loner behaviour. Traditional genealogy provides a perfect match for my character flaws.

When an acquaintance asks mockingly "Are you one of those people still at your desk as late evening turns to early morning with no company other than your database, piles of old paper and half a mug of cold coffee?", I can only emulate Agent 86 in my response.

I understand that family research can be enriched by selective collaboration. I am happy to help others with their work. I enjoy giving assistance and believe that I am quite good at it. But there is a world of difference between offering advice to others and having them "help me".

The mathematics is inexorable. My 2xgreat grandfather will have (at least) several hundred descendants and some dozens of them are probably investigating details of his life. But in a document-based world, they are each working in their own bubbles making egregious errors or astonishing breakthroughs that have no impact on my work. I am free to retain complete control over what I do and what I uncover (or not). Like a toddler placing pudgy hands over his eyes, I could declare "You cannot see me."

But genetic genealogy changes all that. I have invited the people that I have been ignoring into my inbox. The game has changed and I need to find ways to deal with that. I must make time to really look into all those possible connections. Soon.

What if there is another bossy, opinionated control-freak out there with fixed ideas on how we should research our family tree? Do you think that sort of thing could be driven by factors inherited from a shared ancestor?

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