I've been waiting for over a year now for the latest book by Edward Ball, author of the best-selling Slaves in the Family, a book I much admired. I had participated in a webinar of sorts last year when he spoke of his latest project -- using genetic genealogy to explore his roots. The trigger for this exploration intrigued me -- his discovery of 9 old hair samples from his family. I was curious about this since it's fairly well known that he'd only be able to test for mtDNA on these samples, and that the odds of success were far from guaranteed. In fact, I wrote about this in July 2006.
So now the book is out: The Genetic Strand - Exploring a Family History through DNA. What surprised me was the randomness of his genetic journey. He avoided all the major genetic genealogy companies and only took a test or two from companies like DNAPrint Genomics, Trace Genetics and African Ancestry. He also almost willfully ignored common knowledge about genetic genealogy, taking a meandering course of testing that leaves one sort of baffled.
I found myself mentally questioning why he took particular tests from particular companies in the order he followed. For what he ultimately learns, he could have taken a much more efficient testing path. And while he goes into some depth on the science behind all the testing, he doesn't cover some basics -- like the fact that some of the tests he took were low resolution (and what that means in terms of interpreting results). I also found myself wanting to see his family tree (he has one hard-to-follow illustration that attempts to show the hair-providers) so I could see what his testing options were. Instead, the reader is left with his choices -- which may have been perfectly logical, but are presented without much context.
I was also somewhat taken aback by this quote from pages 129-130:
"Genealogy, a search for family history, is practiced by millions of middle-aged and middle class Americans, for whom it has traditionally been a way to snatch a bit of glory or a helping of a fantasy from the past. It is, after all, the little activities, visiting libraries and surfing Web sites, that allow one to acquire "good genes." Most people who do family research are white, and most of them look for ancestors with the goal to unearth the whitest, most moneyed forebears they can. That is one definition of good genes."
This comes as a surprise to me. That someone as immersed in the world of genealogy as he is could still be living with the retro-perspective that we're all just seeking glory -- that supposedly stems from whiteness and dollars no less -- caught me off-guard. Maybe these remarks reflect the world Ball grew up in or maybe he meant it in a more historical way -- but as a contemporary of his, I was thrown. Perhaps my mostly Ellis Island heritage and Army brat upbringing have left me with a wildly divergent paradigm. Maybe I'm the one who's seeing things through a peculiar prism. But I sure hope I'm not the only one who finds herself raising an eyebrow at his assessment.
But more to the point, as I often tell my genetic genealogy audiences, the folks who are most likely to be disappointed with their testing results are the ones who end up 100% anything -- including European. Folks these days seemingly crave admixture -- and in a sense, so does Ball. He essentially winds up disappointed with his testing project because it reveals that he's mostly just plain old European. He had brief hopes of Native American and African, but they're both dashed by the end of the book, so he's somewhat dismissive of genetic genealogy, saying, "I'd been skeptical of the swagger of science before entering its molecular world, and now DNA wasn't the fields of truth it claimed to be."
I'm not sure where he developed his expectations for "fields of truth," but it doesn't take much effort to learn what DNA can and can't tell us in terms of our roots these days. Frankly, I'm surprised at his seeming surprise that DNA testing can't answer all questions of a roots nature.
Some will still enjoy the book -- especially those who love absorbing the science and learning about the people behind the science. In those areas, he certainly delivers (including an unexpected portrayal of Kary Mullis). As to me, I suppose I'm a victim of my own high expectations. I was thrilled that a writer of Ball's caliber was tackling the topic of genetic genealogy, but I found Lisa Alther's Kinfolks -- falling off the family tree -- about the author's genealogical and genetic quest for her Melungeon ancestry -- more authentic and satisfying. So I guess I'll end on the hopeful note that we're seeing the beginning of a new genre -- the genetic family history.