If deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) was one of the 20th century's most important discoveries, why is it so misunderstood? Thomas Shawker (pictured), chairman of the National Genealogical Society's Committee on Genetic Genealogy, is concerned — especially now that scientists are applying DNA tests to support documented evidence of genealogy.
Shawker will be in town this week to deliver a lecture titled "DNA Testing: The Very, Very Basics," aimed at persuading folks to think of something other than Maury Povich's "Who's Your Daddy?" episodes when they hear the word DNA.
"Genealogy, which was really a complacent field, underwent two revolutions through the years," Shawker says. "The first was the Internet and the second was the use of DNA testing for genealogy — but the science is somewhat difficult. [A genealogist] will send out for a Y chromosome test, and when they get the results, they're not quite sure what [they] mean. DNA testing really can't prove your genealogy, but it can disprove it completely."
According to Shawker, genetic genealogy is supplemental to traditional genealogy, which essentially tracks and links documentation to the present. It will help increase the chance that your ancestry is accurate, but it can just as easily throw that chance out the window. Which is why Shawker is holding onto hope that genealogy will finally be accepted as a mainstream field.
"The Board for Certification of Genealogists sort of ignores genetic genealogy as far as I can tell, but sooner or later they're going to have to address the problem, because there are people out there who [claim they] are 'experts' in genetic genealogy who really aren't," Shawker says.
On the upside, he claims that those who do know what they're doing are creating a whole population of people who understand DNA. And considering how widely useful the science is, you can't afford to be left out. Wed., Nov. 17, 6 p.m., $15, Historical Society of Philadelphia, 1300 Locust St., 215-732-6200, hsp.org.