Wednesday, June 13, 2012

AncestryDNA and a Possible Faux Pa

Having received free admission to the AncestryDNA Beta and gained some knowledge as a result, I feel obliged to offer a review of the service.

Through my father, I expected my genetic ancestry to be about 47% British Isles, 3% Dutch. Some portion of my British genes might in fact be Scandinavian, due to the notoriously indiscriminate dating practices of Vikings. But barring some non-paternity hanky panky not reflected in the records or family tradition, my father's heritage is pretty well settled.

My mother's family was even more a settled fact. Her mother was the child of Finnish immigrants. mtDNA tests taken by me and a maternal uncle were both consistent with a Finnish maternal ancestry. My mother's father was French, and her brother's Y chromosome is consistent with a French paternal ancestry. So I expected my genetic profile to come back 25% French and 25% Finnish/Scandinavian (the Finnish/Swedish border being historically permeable). Imagine my surprise when I received these results:

WTF! Pardon my French, but . . . where's the French?

Let's say my paternal ancestry accounts for the 36% British Isles, maybe 3% of the Uncertain, and perhaps 11% of the Scandinavian. (My scant Dutch ancestry might have been classified as Uncertain, or else misidentified as British Isles; Vikings also left some genetic traces in the Netherlands.) That leaves me with a maternal genetic ancestry which is 16% Finnish and maybe 31% Scandinavian, 3% Uncertain. Which leaves me uncertain who the hell that guy was that I used to call "Grampa."

I can think of three possible explanations:
  1. My French grandfather wasn't French.
  2. The test results are wrong.
  3. My grandmother fooled around.

1. My French grandfather wasn't French
Not likely. He didn't often speak French, but he did curse in French. He was born in Presque Isle in northern Maine, and all of his known ancestors came through the French regions of New Brunswick and Quebec. He was either French or the mastermind of a very elaborate hoax.

2. The test results are wrong
Possibly. AncestryDNA is still in Beta, so refinements and improvements can be expected. But could they have mislabeled a quarter of my genetic makeup? Could my French genes somehow have been misidentified as Scandinavian and/or British? Others have been surprised by the nonFrenchness of their AncestryDNA results, and many have noted an apparent overestimation of Scandinavian ancestry. So maybe when the Francophobic Viking lover in AncestryDNA's laboratory is discovered and fired I'll get fresh results that will again make my grandfather French.

3. My grandmother fooled around
Well, Grampa fooled around, but that's not relevant to this discussion. When I told my mother about the test results, she was unexpectedly pleased. She had always felt more Finnish than French, and the percentages do suggest that her biological father could have been Finnish/Scandinavian. (If her mother did fool around, it was probably with another Finn.) Her siblings looked more French than she ever did. She is now on the waiting list for a $99 AncestryDNA test of her own, which she hopes will confirm that she is 100% Finnish/Scandinavian. Once she has those results (and after we've given AncestryDNA some time to refine its process), she'll broach the subject with her maternal aunt—likely the only person alive with knowledge of any possible extramarital activity.

My criticisms of AncestryDNA are the same that have been leveled elsewhere. The superficial presentation of test results makes it impossible to know what parts of my genome I share with each of my "Member Matches." Further, I have two matches in the fourth-sixth cousin range, but I can't contact them through the site without an active subscription.* (One of my matches' username is her first and last name, which allowed me to identify her and through some stalking snooping ingenious genealogical research determine that she is my fifth cousin once removed. I was able to identify the other match as well (she uses the same username on Twitter), but haven't been able to find a common ancestor.)

I join the chorus asking that AncestryDNA make raw data available and test results portable, i.e. let users export their data and upload it to third-party sites. The graphs and maps are pretty and all, but some users want to get under the hood and get their hands dirty. Being matched with a previously unknown fifth cousin and finding that our pedigrees intersect gives me some confidence that the science behind AncestryDNA is sound. But allowing experienced genetic genealogists to compare the raw data from this and other tests would go a long way toward establishing widespread confidence in a service that is, so far, a black box.

*I have been offered 6 months free access to "Ancestry Connections" which would allow me to contact them, but will paying customers be offered this deal as the service moves out of Beta? I can understand restricting access to member trees and other features, but shouldn't potential cousins be allowed to make contact without continued contributions to's bottom line?

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