Traditional vs. Scientific Genealogy?

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”:

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.

11 thoughts on “Traditional vs. Scientific Genealogy?

  1. Thanks, Michael — a very interesting topic. We’re verging on philosophy (specifically, epistemology) here. But one takeaway that I think everyone would agree on is that there can be social kinship that may not always line up with biological or legal kinship (which is why we trace adoptive lineages too). IMO, however, that fact does not imply that we know nothing if we lack a certain kind of biological evidence. It does mean that (in your case, for instance) there is an *extremely* small possibility that it might surprise us.

  2. Well put, Michael. Your examples from your own birth, while applying the GPS, is excellent work.

    I don’t see this as an “either-or” or “versus” discussion. Tamura has included “scientific” (which should be labelled “biological” IMHO) as one element of genealogy that can “prove” parenthood. To me, and I think to Tamura and many others, it proves parenthood “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

    For example, only my mother “knew” who impregnated her when I was conceived. If she had had more than one partner at the time of conception, then she would have had doubt. All of the family testimony and stories might have been unknowingly false. My Y-DNA testing proves that my biological father was, indeed, her husband at the time.

    Your Y-DNA test provides “proof” that your paternal line is correct back to the MRCA of the other Y-DNA testers. Mitochondrial DNA tests may similarly prove a maternal line. Most of us can do this for only one or two of our paternal and maternal lines, which leaves many lines “unproven” by biological testing. We use the “traditional” genealogy tools to “prove” the relationships that we are unable to prove using “scientific” tools.

    I think this discussion revolves around the word “proof.” There is only one “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” in my mind – that is the biological test. All of the records in the world, or family testimony and stories, can provide only “clear and convincing proof,” which is short of the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.

    So we are left with genealogy research with different proof levels. I think that this is what Tamura was trying to say. He’s not claiming that we should use only “scientific” genealogy results, but that we should understand the different tools used to gather evidence and apply the GPS to our research.

    • The more I read what Tamura wrote in the guest post (and in his own blog), I think that you may be right as to what he intended to say.

      However, the original comment stated that, short of DNA testing, we cannot know even our own parents. This is, I think, where the disagreement enters. By applying the Genealogical Proof Standard to our conclusions, we can determine just how reliable these conclusions are. I honestly believe that we can establish facts based solely on “traditional” genealogy and documentary evidence.

      To play devil’s advocate for just a minute, there is of course the fact that even DNA tests are not 100% reliable. They may be 99%, but one can find examples of false positives as well. DNA evidence must be evaluated with the same discerning eye with which we evaluate documentary evidence. To be sure, we can remove the doubt introduced by such issues as bias on the part of the informant, etc. If, for example, we are using a Y-DNA test, then all this really “proves” is that the father shares Y-DNA with others of the same surname. If the alleged father has brothers or uncles, Y-DNA would still leave doubts.

      Paternity testing, to specifically determine the father of a child, requires testing of the child, mother, and suspected father, in order to be 99% effective [“Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Paternity / Parentage Testing,” Genetic Profiles Corporation ( : accessed 22 Jun 2011).] This is simply impossible for anyone BUT those still living. So in effect, we are no longer discussing genealogy at all, but fantasy. For many of us, this alleged evidence does not exist.

      My original point, however, is that the Genealogical Proof Standard can be applied to every conclusion our research achieves. Assuming that we have gathered all pertinent information and otherwise met the Standard, we can be reasonably sure that our conclusions are accurate. Of course, as I stated in my post, the discovery of new evidence–including DNA evidence–contradicting our initial conclusion must be considered and our conclusion adjusted as necessary.

  3. As in your case, more often than not a DNA test is going to confirm what you believe from other evidence, but people living a lie, with the grandmother claiming on all documentation and in person to be the mother of an unmarried daughter’s child is hardly unknown.

    I agree with Tamura. Back in 1998 Helen Leary wrote “Science and the law are in agreement: there is only one way to prove kinships beyond reasonable doubt — DNA testing. As a genealogical standard, that is hardly practical.” See Today it is practical.

    • It is no more practical today than it was in 1998. See my above comments in response to Randy’s comment.

      In order for paternity testing to be 99% effective, the child, mother, and alleged father must all be tested. Unless science raises the dead, DNA paternity testing cannot be done for the majority of the people and relationships we are researching. Y-DNA testing cannot prove anything beyond the surname or family line of the father, and the mutation rate is such that a match could open up the potentials to any other male with that surname.

  4. Hi Michael ~ I guess that I don’t have as much issue with Tamura’s comments but simply find that the distinction is not as important to me as it seems to be to him. I like Harold’s comment about “social kinship that may not always line up with biological…” If DNA were to prove that I was not my parents’ child it would not change my social kinship. In many ways that is what interests me the most in my pursuit of genealogy – the family history as opposed to only (or even primarily) the bloodline. I view DNA as an additional clue.

    I will say that in a recent genealogy lecture I attended the speaker mentioned that he had read the statistic that 10% of people (it might have been in the UK – I don’t remember the exact quote) did not have the parents they thought they did. He related that the first time he mentioned that he gave the opinion that he felt that was awfully high – to which a little old lady in the audience had remarked, “You men are so delusional!”

    I personally am aware of a case where someone would have most, if not all, of the proof you have above for you parentage and yet in reality her “father” is her uncle and her “mother” is not a blood relative while her “aunt” is truly her mother and her biological father is not even in the picture. There would be no paper trail to prove anything to the contrary as her mother checked into the hospital AS her sister-in-law with her brother as the husband. Since her birth mother and her supposed father are siblings, she could certainly resemble her father’s side of the family!! (this was back in the 40’s when things were not so strict in terms of identity – you were who you said you where)

    Wow – this ended up to be more than I meant to say …which was just that I enjoy pursuing the social kinship aspect and try to do that while adhering to a strict standard of “proof.” To that end I currently view DNA as an additional help, but not my end objective.

    • A statistic that says that 10% of people do not have the parents they think they did is simply absurd. This may be possible in modern urban areas, but in a smaller town, this would be impossible. One must not dismiss the power of gossip. Word of an unfaithful wife often gets around. (No pun intended.) In past times, where morality was far less “gray area,” I would suspect that this would be even more the case. In my experience with 18th and 19th century bastardy cases, for example, often a third party accused the woman of bastardy (having a child out of wedlock), and even when she declined to identify the father, the father was often known to this third party. Without knowing the exact details of the small sample actually tested to arrive at this statistic, I cannot subject it to a more specific critique. But in my opinion, without testing every single person on the face of the planet, there is no way to confirm this “statistic,” and it becomes meaningless.

      I agree that cases like the one you describe exist. I know of at least one case among my own acquaintances, where a boy was brought up to believe he was the son of his grandmother, and younger brother of his mother (who had him rather young). However, the fact that we know of such cases itself proves that there is evidence to the contrary of the “accepted” parentage. You will note that one of the pieces of evidence I cited in my own parentage specifically noted that no such contradictory evidence had been located. I should have also stated that no evidence of the existence of such contradictory evidence had been located either. Searching for contradictory evidence–not just supporting evidence–is also part of the “reasonably exhaustive search” dictated as part of the Genealogical Proof Standard.

      • Oh yes – you have to love a small town 🙂 And I understand about the “reasonably exhaustive search” – because I attended your webinar on the subject….which was great btw!

        The 10% remark was being used to illustrate a totally different point – not about parentage or dna or anything like that so I don’t have any idea really where it came from. Seemed high to me too but still interesting to consider. I would feel fairly confident that anyone whose lineage goes back far enough – and in enough different lines – has one “mistaken” ancestor on the tree.

        But overall I still agree with you – that is not generally going to be something that dna will help me with since testing on all the required people would no longer be possible.

  5. Pingback: Traditional vs. Scientific Genealogy, round two « Planting the Seeds

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s