The May/June issue of the magazine
of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), American Spirit has an interesting
article on the use of DNA in genealogy entitled, "Meet Your Match." This article was included in American Spirit
apparently to introduce DAR members to the idea of using DNA in genealogy, but, perhaps more
importantly, to “explain” why at the present time, DAR rejects any DNA evidence submitted as a part of
an application to DAR membership. Such
applications must prove descent from an ancestor who fought for, or provided
certain support to, the colonies’ cause in the Revolutionary War.
The article represents a fairly
balanced introduction to the subject, but the part that supposedly explains why
DNA evidence can’t be used to support
the documentation of a lineage in an application,
leaves anyone knowledgeable about the uses of DNA in genealogy to scratch his head
The article quotes the chair of
the DNA Committee of the DAR Genealogy Department, Thomas Ragusin, as follows:
example, if two men with the same surname match 37 markers tested, we would
only know they are related within six generations, 50 percent of the time. If
we wish to improve the accuracy to a reasonable level of about 85 percent, then
we can only know they are related within 15 generations. Fifteen generations
exceeds the length of all DAR applications submitted to date.
Now, in fairness to Thomas Ragusin, the author of the article was probably looking for
a catchy sound bite, rather than a reasoned analysis, and likely, that was the
main consideration for inclusion of that quote in the article. However, whatever the reason, we now have a
rather ridiculous statement on the record as to why DAR won’t accept DNA evidence.
The issue was taken up on the ISOGG
Yahoo DNA list and discussed further, a few
posters being understanding of the DAR’s position and many others were
quite strongly critical, pointing out the problems in the DAR’s logic.
Those offering support of the DAR position largely echoed Ragusin’s statement that DNA cannot prove descent from a
Revolutionary soldier. In the strictest
sense, this is correct, but this is basically a straw man, and not at all what
supporters of DNA testing have proposed.
However, one of the most incisive comments on the Rootsweb
list came from Roberta Estes, and she quite skillfully demolished the DAR’s “reasoning.” Ms. Estes made three main points, which I
1. DNA can be used to prove the
individual is NOT biologially descended from the
patriot, regardless of what the genealogy says.
I'm curious if they won't accept it as positive evidence, will they
accept it as negative evidence?
2. The DNA matches, or near matches, to the DNA of the patriot, [may] indicate a
common paternal ancestor. In this
general case, the exact ancestor cannot be identified without additional
genealogical information. DNA information would be taken as
further confirmation of whatever the genealogy indicates, but cannot stand
3. There are some unusual cases
where a line marker mutation can be proven to have occurred in a specific son's
line from a particular man [e.g., a patriot].
This is done by using the triangulation method and yes, you'd need to
have the DNA of two other sons to effectively do this. However, if a mutation exists for a
particular line, and especially if it is a rare mutation, meaning the frequency
of the allele that the value has mutated to is low, lessening the possibility
that it spontaneously occurred in another line, then I think a reasonable case
could be made that in this type of situation, one could conclude that an
individual was indeed a descendant of a particular individual, especially if
there is any reasonable genealogy information to go along with the DNA information. Unfortunately, case 3 cannot be determined in
a vacuum, and one would have to have some rather advanced knowledge about DNA for genealogy to be able to
really ascertain if a case that was prepared using this kind of evidence was
valid or not. Using the standard TMCRA tables is NOT how to do this.
To me, these points are quite
devastating to the DAR position. The DAR has decided to reject ALL DNA evidence, because it can’t pass
their ultimate test—can it prove from a living person’s DNA results, that
they are patrilineal descendants of some Revolutionary War patriot? Well, of course it can’t, yet, who has ever
suggested that DNA evidence could do that?
And, what other single type of evidence could do that?
An analogy may be useful
here. Census records are often used to
establish a lineage, both within and outside of the DAR process. Can census records “prove” that a particular
Revolutionary War patriot was the ancestor of an applicant? Of course not. So, does the DAR reject all census records? Of course not. Census records, can, however, help prove the
case for certain links in the lineage.
The census records are simply considered as one part of the case for the
links in the lineage, and all of the different types of evidence must be
DNA evidence is no different in this
regard from census records. One may be
able to use DNA evidence, along with census records, estate records, land records,
and other forms of traditional genealogical evidence, to help establish one or
more links in a lineage. The idea that DNA evidence should be rejected
because, by itself, it usually cannot establish a lineage between a living
applicant and a Revolutionary patriot, or because the normal TMRCA calculation
has a large uncertainty attached to it, is completely ridiculous. No one should ever think of using DNA data in the way that the DAR describes it.
Normally, the proper use of DNA evidence would be to corroborate
the case that an applicant establishes, using traditional methods of
genealogical research. However, in
unusual cases, as Ms. Estes’s point number three suggests, it may sometimes be
possible, by testing multiple living individuals, that
a particular rare mutation occurred in a particular ancestor, thereby marking
all of the patrilineal descendants of that person with the same mutation. In such cases, it may be possible to use the DNA evidence to “skip over” one or
more otherwise problematic links in the lineage and establish the overall
lineage. Such cases would require that
the staff at DAR be sufficiently well versed in the DNA field that they could make an
independent evaluation of the DNA evidence that is used, and that
would involve an assessment of the probability that the DNA match could occur in an unrelated
individual. Even in those cases where
the DNA evidence can be used in this way,
traditional evidence should also be included to show that the lineage is at
least plausible on traditional grounds.
While I would not wish to minimize
the challenge to the DAR staff in applying the proper analysis and making the
proper judgment in the case of DNA evidence, or to applicants making
the appropriate case, the DAR will undoubtedly eventually have to change its
policy. The Sons of the American
Revolution and the Society of Mayflower Descendants have shown that an
organization need not reject DNA evidence completely. A lineage society should simply allow its
applicants to use DNA evidence when it is appropriate to help make his or her
case. If an applicant submits an
application with inappropriate use of DNA evidence in trying to prove a
lineage, then the application can be appropriately rejected, just as it would
do with the inappropriate use of any other type of evidence. Rejecting DNA evidence, regardless of how it
might be used, is just plain silly.