Every Saturday night, Randy Seaver posts a “Saturday Night Genealogy Fun” assignment. I have participated in these from time to time (when I have the time), as can be seen in these posts–from its previous incarnation as “Tricks of the Tree”:
- “Saturday Night Genealogy Fun: Paternal Grandmother’s Patrilinear Line” (21 Mar 2009)
- “Another Brick in the Wall? or Brickwall in the Tree?” (29 Mar 2009)
- “Saturday Night Genealogy Fun” (9 Aug 2009)
- “Sunday Morning Genealogy Fun: My Favorite Song” (27 Sep 2009)
- “Saturday Night Genealogy Fun: I Write Like” (18 July 2010)
This past Saturday, 18 June 2011, Randy posted his weekly SNGF assignment, entitled “Saturday Night Genealogy Fun – Who is Your Most Recent Unknown Ancestor?” The assignment read,
1) Determine who your most recent unknown ancestor is – the one that you don’t even know his or her name.
2) Summarize what you know about his or her family, including resources that you have searched and the resources you should search but haven’t searched yet.
3) Tell us about it in your own blog post, in a comment to this post, or in a status on Facebook.
What seems a rather simple task was challenged in the comments to the post by a blogger named Tamura Jones, who wrote,
I am disappointed that neither Randy nor any of his respondent gave the correct answer.
It is so hard to leave the dogmas and misconceptions of traditional genealogy behind and become a scientific genealogist?
The scientific genealogy truth is simple: for most of you, your most recent unknown ancestors are your parents.
Neither family stories nor vital records constitute any proof of a biological relationship.
Only if a DNA test confirmed who your biological parents are, does the MRU ["most recent unknown"] status move from your parents to your grandparents, etc.
It may be hard to face that fact, it may be an unpopular truth, but it is not less true because of that…
Tamura wrote on a similar subject in his own blog back on 21 March 2011, in “‘Start with what you know.’” [Please note, this site will not open using Internet Explorer 8 or lower.] In this post, he asserts that “Start with what you know,” often the first advice given to beginning genealogists, is inaccurate. He continues,
The first thing a beginning genealogists needs to be told isn’t to write down who their parents and grandparents are. The first thing a beginning genealogists needs to be told is that you have to question what you think you know. The first thing beginning genealogists need to be reminded of is that assumptions aren’t facts.
In today’s world, where few people have done DNA tests, that does not mean telling them to write down who their parents and grandparents are, it means explaining to them that they do know who their parents and grandparents are.
Despite the conviction with which Tamura states his opinions, they remain opinions. And where there are opinions, there are differences in opinion. Below I will describe my opinion.
There is a standard of proof in genealogy, aptly called the “Genealogical Proof Standard.” This standard, briefly stated, requires (1) the collection of evidence, (2) the analysis of evidence, and (3) the formation of a logical conclusion based on the evidence. The Standard does not require specifically biological (DNA) evidence in order to form a conclusion. It does not even require direct evidence. Published case studies provide numerous examples of logical conclusions based solely on indirect evidence.
To assert that DNA testing is the only way to “prove” parental connections may seem cutting-edge, but is in fact rather naive and, in my opinion, rather lazy. It is equivalent to those beginning genealogists who require direct evidence to “prove” a parental connection. Requiring DNA evidence takes this reliance on direct evidence to its strictest possible extreme. In my professional experience, I have worked on hundreds of different client research projects, and in every single one of them, there was at least one parental connection where direct evidence simply did not exist. This would be even more frequent if DNA evidence were required. If I were to guess, I believe that most ancestral lines simply have no DNA-testing option.
How can documentary evidence be as effective as biological (DNA) evidence?
Here is the documentary evidence that my parents are my parents:
1. My birth certificate names my parents as my parents. This is direct evidence created contemporaneously with the event by parties directly involved in the event (assuming my parents filled out the birth certificate themselves).
2. My parents have both independently, and on many separate occasions, told me directly that they are my parents and that I am their son. This is again primary information providing direct evidence.
3. Other witnesses, including my grandparents and my parents’ siblings, have independently, and on many separate occasions, told me directly that my parents are my parents. This is secondary information providing corroborating direct evidence.
4. I personally remember living with my parents as a child. This is primary information, though indirect evidence of who my parents are.
5. I bear a striking physical resemblance to my father. This may be an opinion, but is commonly shared by many independent observers. Even as recently as ten years ago, when I would walk down the street in my grandparents’ neighborhood, neighbors who knew my father recognized me as being his son.
6. No evidence that my parents are not my parents has ever been located. This provides negative evidence that my parents are my parents.
Of course, with all of the involved parties still living, evidence is available for this case that will not be available for many cases. But none of the evidence cited above involved swabbing my cheek or otherwise providing a DNA sample. Yet the assertion that my parents are my parents is a logical conclusion based on this evidence. I could make similar arguments for my relationships to my grandparents, and though the evidence changes with each generation, all of my “proven” ancestors.
How reliable is this documentary evidence? Well, it just so happens that I did take a Y-DNA test (37 markers) several years ago. All of my close DNA matches bore the surnames HOYT or HAIGHT, both “proven” variants of my surname HAIT. My closest DNA matches shared my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. DNA testing confirmed ten generations of my ancestry, previously proved with documentary evidence.
So if Tamura’s assertions were as “true” as he claims, I would not have been able to prove any of these generations with any certainty prior to taking the DNA test. Not having tested any of my other lines through DNA surrogates, I still feel confident in my conclusions.
There is, of course, one caveat that supports Tamura’s “scientific” opinion. Occasionally, DNA testing reveals what is called a “non-paternity event” (NPE). This is most often concluded when a Y-DNA test leads to a surname other than the one that the testing male bears. Though I do not have exact statistics, I believe that these are relatively rare when compared with the total number of testers.
Contradictory evidence is not a new concept, however. The Genealogical Proof Standard requires that researchers incorporate any newly-acquired evidence into each conclusion. A non-paternal event revealed by DNA testing is not the only evidence that one might discover that overturns one’s previous conclusions. It would be treated in the same way that any contradictory documentary evidence would be.
Genealogists must consider and evaluate all evidence when forming conclusions. DNA testing provides one form of evidence, but by no means the only reliable evidence. At least in my opinion, this is a fact.