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Family Ties

It’s been almost a year since I wrote about my genetic testing results from 23andMe. That’s because, despite paying $5 a month for the site’s mandatory Personal Genome Service®, I rarely look at it.

It’s not that I’m scared of the data (been there), and not because I forgot — every six or eight weeks I get an email from the company saying things like, You have 8 new results from 23andMe! New discoveries have been made about your DNA! I hadn’t visited the site because, frankly, I was bored of it. How many times is one expected to look sort-of-interesting, sort-of-meaningless risk calculations and ponder healthier ways to live?

Then at a conference last week, while trying to make small talk with a scientist, I mentioned my 23andMe subscription. Turns out he has one, too. “Isn’t it funny when you get those messages from your distant relatives?” he said. I told him I didn’t know what he meant. “I get them all the time,” he said, shaking his head.

Back at my desk Monday morning I found myself on my 23andMe page, staring at 20 new messages in my 23andMe inbox. All had the same subject line: “A relative would like to make contact with you.” I clicked on one and saw a tiny square photo of the sender’s face, and this message (photos have been dropped, names changed and text truncated):

5th Cousin
Sarah Ryan
Residence: United States
Ancestry: Northern Europe
Maternal Haplogroup H24

23andMe has identified us as potential relatives. I would love to see if we can find the common relative…Because I was curious about health issues and finding more about distant relatives I joined 23andme. Now I find many of my matches go in different directions. I am sure all these pieces will fit somehow…I love seeing how the migration of this family takes so many twists and turns…talking to people I am related to is fascinating.

I clicked on another:

5th Cousin
James Burke
Residence: United States
Ancestry: Northern Europe
Maternal Haplogroup T1a1
Paternal Haplogroup R1a1a*


Through our shared DNA, 23andMe has identified us as relatives. Our predicted relationship is 5th Cousin, with a likely range of 3rd to 10th Cousin. Would you like to explore our relationship?

And another:

4th Cousin
Erik Brevig
Residence: United States
Ancestry: Northern Europe
Maternal Haplogroup V
Paternal Haplogroup R1a1a*


I am a Norwegian American…I am part of a large family tree collaboration through Giants of the Earth Heritage Center. We are triangulating various genetic relationships to authoritatively merge family trees and discover lost farm homesteads in the old countries.

Enough, enough. I called my younger sister, who’s visiting me this week, over to the computer. “Aren’t these people creepy?!” I said.

“Oh Ginny, you should friend them,” she said. “They’re related to us!”

Genealogical titillation isn’t some new byproduct of the genomic revolution, of course. Our father was obsessed with tracing his roots. He began in earnest in the 1960s, making pedigree chart after chart, filling in holes after fact-finding trips from his home in Michigan to cemeteries and libraries in North Dakota and Minnesota and who knows where else. About 10 years ago, he moved his hunt online. He transferred his hand-written pedigrees onto the Family Tree Maker computer program. He scoured Amazon and AbeBooks for rare books, so old their spines disintegrate with each touch, full of names and deeds and other official records. He had long, back-and-forth email conversations with “relatives” registered on sites like Ancestry.com.

After he died, my sister and I didn’t know what to do with the products of all this meticulous detective work. I have a yellowing piece of paper hanging on my office wall that certifies him (and therefore, me) as a member of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. And my Gmail archives are full of his 500-word biographies and sloppily scanned photographs of this or that ancestor (like his favorite, Alexander Hughes, at left, who was an entrepreneur and legislator in the Dakota Territory). But the bulk of the work sits in cardboard boxes in a closet in Michigan.

Intrigued by my sister’s sympathetic reaction to our long (long) lost 23andMe relatives, I took a closer look at their head shots. We all look vaguely similar: pale, ruddy, sturdy. And I have no trouble believing that our great-grandparents’ grandparents once broke bread together in pale, ruddy, sturdy communities in Norway and Ireland.

But that doesn’t answer the question that I used to ask my father, with a little too much exasperation, over and over again. What makes these ancestral connections so fascinating? And why would anybody want to share intimate family details with people who are, in every way that matters, complete strangers?

This post was originally published on The Last Word on Nothing

16 thoughts on “Family Ties

  1. I’m totally with you on this. The historical angle is mildly interesting, but the idea that you share some degree of ancestry is (to me, anyway) about as fascinating as the 1.23-fold increased risk of Genetic Diseae No 1243 that you may or may not have.

    It also seems to be a somewhat narrow view. Go far enough back and we’re all related.

    Also, the guy who said: “Would you like to explore our relationship?” No. No, I would like to run in the opposite direction, screaming gently.

  2. Ha! I know, the ‘want to explore?’ question was hilarious. I suspect that it’s something the 23andMe software suggested as a template, or something, because I got at least two messages with that exact phrasing…

  3. I agree with both Ginny and Ed. But I met someone else with my same unlikely last name, and though we agreed that if we were related it was in 15th century rural Germany, I still feel as though this person and I are connected by some small string. Maybe that’s what “related” means, a small, hardwired string. Or maybe people growing up in a gerbil cage of relatives, as I did, have the concept of “related” and see it everywhere.

  4. I had a great uncle who spent more time studying our family tree than he ever spent on the trees in his collective yards… As I understood it, his motivation was to gain a better understanding of our ancestor’s involvement in famous historical events. That pursuit gobbled up more of his time…sheesh…People really get into this!

  5. Don’t need genetic testing to know we’re first cousins! I have similar tomes from the Whorf side. Sigh. Perhaps it will be fascinating when I’m … 70? Doubtful.

  6. I think the fascination is similar to Sci Fi stories about parallel universes where slightly-different decisions lead to vastly different outcomes. 5 generations ago, 2 siblings went their separate ways, and now 5 generations after their slightly-different decisions starting from effectively the same place, the result is you being very different from Sarah Ryan or James Burke. Understanding that great-great-great-great-grandparent’s situation in Ireland/Norway/South Dakota, and how the various children moved on from there is fascinating.

    Another way to look at it is that historians don’t really get to do controlled experiments much. History basically happened only one way, and so the “sciency” part of history is really in looking at different decisions in similar circumstances — but with ancestry hunting, you get a bit closer to the outcomes of different decisions in more or less “the same” circumstances.

    PS Whoever took that photo of the photo of Alex Hughes did a great job, given the crappy lighting conditions. What a superstar!

  7. But Craig, each new generation brings with it sooooo many variables that influence decision-making. I get your argument if you’re talking about what makes me different from you or from Sally, but if you do that six times over the comparisons become pretty meaningless.

    I agree, the photographer was a superstar!

  8. But from a historian’s perspective, it’s like saying “In what ways did Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia lead to the Korean War?” — there’s a long path through the Crimean War, World War I, The Russian Revolution, to the empowerment of Stalin, but if Napoleon hadn’t tried and failed to invade Russia, Nicholas wouldn’t have had such a bug in his butt about French/British stuff in Turkey, and the Crimean war might not have happened, yadda yadda, yadda. Watching two branches of a family evolve in different ways over time is like a mini version of watching Napoleon invade Russia and at the same time not invade Russia, and see what happens in each case… Or something.

  9. My father is similarly obsessed with ancestry – he’s met with random people he met online who were distant cousins. It started when he began compiling old family photos for my grandparents and discovered that a great-uncle had already done a ton of the family history research in the 30s, and he got obsessed with finishing it. Because of him I know things like exactly when each branch of the family came to the United States (except the one he can only trace to the orphan trains) and that Celene Dion is my 12th cousin. Which… okay? That’s nice?

    I admit, I just don’t get it either.

  10. So far as health aspects, I completely agree. If I wanted — badly enough — to be healthier, I know what to do without the test results: Eat healthier & less, exercise more, etc.

    I also agree that “3rd t0 10th cousin” isn’t close family; we’re not getting together at holidays. Nor, is the technology suffieciently advanced to yield good asnwers now.

    But, the family history aspect has fascinations for me:
    1. The mystery story of where I came from — I write my own detective story, using real facts and characters. (This seems to have been your father’s motivation.)

    2. Micro-history — How did my ancestors influence events and were in turn influenced by events?

    3. As we age, more life is behind us than ahead; it’s natural to look to the past. By looking beyond our own births, we can extend our time frame.

    Of course, these are merely hobbies; the saying goes “My genealogy is fascinating; yours is boring.” Yet, genealogists do an exercise they call “the happy dance” when a small piece of the puzzle is found & fits. It’s fun.

    Genetic testing is only one tool in a family historian’s kit. It isn’t the primary tool and doesn’t do the job alone. But, it can be helpful when other tools fail.

  11. I am TOTALLY fascinated by genealogy. To me, it seems like a captivating story. Captivating, in part, because it’s my story, my family’s story. I have so many questions. LIke why, WHY, would you come from Europe and settle in North Dakota. Were they headed for Cali and got tired? Were they gluttons for punishment?

    I agree, however, that meeting a living 5th cousin doesn’t seem all that interesting. Maybe because it wouldn’t shed much light on the big unanswered questions. Who am I and how did I get here?

  12. Some people are fascinated by military history. I think those people are weird and I just don’t get it.

    Genealogy is a story about your family, yourself and people who were in similar circumstances generations ago but whose descendants might be in very different circumstances. I can easily see why it might be interesting. Also, maybe the less you know growing up, the more fascinating it is to find out.

  13. For someone who grew up nerdy in an academic household (and I suspect some science journalists had similar upbringings), it has been reassuring to learn that my ancestors were ordinary folks: butchers, bakers, sailors, pub owners.

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