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Monday, 30 August 2010

The End of Genealogy

I was talking to friends yesterday about their research into their family trees. I don't do this myself, but it seems to me that this must be the Golden Age for amateur genealogists, with so much data available online nowadays, and more going that way all the time. The days of wandering around graveyards, combing through parish records, and scanning microfiched birth certificates will one day be over, when all conceivably available data is somewhere on the web, indexed and accessible.

And sometime after that, genealogy will be effectively over.

For once someone has accurately mapped their ancestors, there is no real work left for their children to do, except add on the latest generation. Even if someone coming new to genealogy knows that their parents never did any research, it is quite likely that one of their cousins did. Go back just three generations and you've already got eight direct ancestors. If just one of their other descendants has already done the leg work, all you need to do is link up with them. And with web sites like Genes Reunited, that's becoming increasingly easy.

If I ever decide to research my own family tree, it will be out of curiosity, not a wish to acquire a new hobby. If I can quickly link up with some distant relative's existing work, I'm pretty sure that's just what I'll do.

The principal reason I haven't ever had attempted to trace my own ancestors is down to me being adopted. Which tree should I trace? I've always been clear in my mind that my real parents were the people who brought me up and nurtured me to adulthood. And my real grandparents were the people I remember from my childhood. But go any further back and issues get muddied in my mind. If I ever wonder about who my predecessors were in, say, the sixteenth century, it's biological ancestors I think about.

Once again, modern technology is stepping in. Companies providing personal genetic testing like 23andMe can offer you the option of being put in touch with close genetic relatives who've also been tested. Just as in genealogy, family trees are going to be constructed, then linked together.

Not all linked together though. Genealogical records usually only go back a handful of centuries, and even royalty can't trace back much more than a thousand years. That's hardly anything when measured against the age of the human race. This will mean that, when we get to the point where everyone can access their tree (their paper, rather than genetic, tree) as far back as is possible, the population will be naturally partitioned into groups sharing a common ancestor. A common, known ancestor, that is.

Genetic testing will achieve a similar effect. DNA tests though, will go back much further than genealogical records. Logically any two human beings share a closest common ancestor, and our DNA should be able to make a good estimate of just how far back that person lived.

I wonder how human interaction will change when all this comes to fruition. In the last decade you've been able to google a new acquaintance. The day may be coming soon when you'll also be able to quickly find out how much DNA you've got in common.


  1. A very interesting thought. Ultimately I believe it is inevitable that everybody will be dna tested, so all we have to do is wait, and we will be presented with our ancestor maps without any effort or cost.
    And those spending time and money to struggle to decipher old photocopied birth certificates will be most dischuffed.

  2. But one's DNA family tree will not necessarily match the paper records tree, and I'm not just referring to adoptees like myself. I've seen estimates ranging from 1 in 14 to 1 in 7 of people not having the biological father they think they have. A lot of family secrets are going to come out when DNA testing becomes widespread.