Criticism — From the June 2014 issue

America’s Ancestry Craze

Making sense of our family-tree obsession

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CeCe Moore, the most interesting and intuitive genetic-genealogy consultant I’ve encountered in my wanderings through this world, points out that although autosomal-DNA tests can pinpoint the genetic truth of relationships, “people with a storied pedigree have a lot to lose” and often refuse to risk being tested. Moore’s own brother-in-law discovered in 2011 that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings are his fourth great-grandparents. While DNA results show “tons” of Jefferson descendants and the evidence that Hemings and Jefferson had children together is overwhelming, Moore can’t write about her brother-in-law’s discovery “officially, scientifically” without DNA data from the “pedigreed ancestors,” and “it’s difficult to get them to test,” she says.

Moore sees a kinship between what she does and detective work. Like so many people who are drawn to genealogy, she’s fascinated by uncanny coincidences. The first time her sister’s family visited Jefferson’s home in Monticello, before they knew of their connection to the man and the place, her niece fainted. It could have been the warm day, Moore concedes, but her niece had never fainted before, and never has since.

Genealogical tree of the Ottoman sultans, 1866–67, during the reign of Abdülaziz © Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York City

Genealogical tree of the Ottoman sultans, 1866–67, during the reign of Abdülaziz © Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York City

When we spoke, Moore was researching Henry Louis Gates’s ancestry for the next season of his PBS show, Finding Your Roots. Gates and his genealogy team produce watchable and often profound television. In one moving episode, Georgia congressman John Lewis, who marched for voting rights with Martin Luther King Jr., weeps when he learns that some of his ancestors freed after the Civil War were among the first black people to register to vote in Georgia — before their right to do so was rescinded. It’s hard — for me, at least — not to see these kinds of echoes as fated.

The ultimate goal of DNA-based genealogy is to create a “Universal Genetic Family Tree” revealing exactly how everyone in the world is related. Moore calls the universal tree an “inevitability.” A genomic database of this kind would eliminate false pedigrees and solve long-standing ancestral mysteries. What it would mean for humankind beyond that is hard to say. I’m incredibly nervous about it. If each of us were as readily identifiable from our saliva as the characters in Gattaca are from their skin cells, to what ends might this information be used? My anxiety about the implications of DNA-based genealogy has not prevented me from being tested at both 23andMe and Ancestry.com, though, or from uploading my raw data from each of those tests to GEDmatch, a site about which I know very little except that it enables cross-platform data-sharing. My fear and my curiosity battled it out, and my curiosity won. It wasn’t much of a contest, honestly.

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