Apr 14, 2011

Book Review: The Genetic Strand

The Genetic Strand was published in 2007–one of the more recent non-academic books on DNA related to family history. Having already read Smolenyak and Turner's book, and dozens of academic and popular articles on the subject, I wasn't hoping to learn much. It merely sounded like an interesting story. The author found several lockets of hair from his relatives in the mid-19th century, hidden in a secret compartment in some antique furniture he inherited. He had samples from the hair analyzed for DNA to shed some light on the people it came from.

The story of his ancestors is interspersed with short bits on the science of genetics, his visits to various forensic labs, conversations with scientists and relatives, and flashbacks to his childhood. He writes well, and the flow is easy-going, but he has some axes to grind. The author somehow feels guilt for events he had no part in, that took place long before he was even born. Studying his ancestors didn't give him a better understanding of who he is, it only gave him more contempt for the people and culture of his family's past; cousin marriage and racism (real and imagined) permeate his family.

Many white people with ancestors in the pre-Civil War south will inevitably find they include slave-owners. As objectionable as that was, there's nothing you can do to change the facts. Trying to hide it or cover it up would be wrong, but so is portraying your ancestors as monsters. Instead, celebrate the progress we've made as a civilization, where "owning" another human being is now considered unconscionable.

Rather than let the science of genetics speak for itself, the book is an incessant litany of race, class, and gender. That kind of mushy-headed, post-modernist pablum is only possible when one's head has been filled with the stuff at one of our so-called elite educational institutions, and swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. What he says about genealogists is particularly condescending:
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 fantasy from the past. It is, after all, the little activities, visiting libraries and surfing Web sites, that allow anyone 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.1
Now, I've met genealogists whose only goal is to find a connection to royalty or celebrity, but they're not in the mainstream. The worst offenders I've encountered who claim descent from royalty or other famous ancestors had some of the poorest documented, shoddily researched family trees I've ever seen. I don't think they bothered to do any of the "little activities" like actually visiting a library, or more important: verifying information. They just make up lineages out of whole cloth. By painting with such a vicious, broad brush, he's undeservedly maligned millions of genealogists. Besides, much of the research he did to write the book was itself genealogy. In fact, he's written no fewer than three books that fall firmly into the family history genre.

He also doesn't seem to have actually understood much of the genetics. When a hair sample of one of his relatives from the distant past is tested, the results show maternal haplogroup D, which only occurs in Native Americans. Then he speculates how they might be related, and proposes a few scenarios, some that would be impossible to inherit mtDNA, which only passes from mothers to their children.2 He also misstates the capability and use of the FBI's CODIS program.3

The only redeeming qualities of the book are his warnings against taking scientific claims at face value, but even here he goes too far. Most so-called "journalists" are guilty of uncritically repeating claims by supposed experts, not just reporters on the science beat. (The author is a columnist himself.) That's one of the problems with a "profession" where the majority of education is about the craft of writing "journalism" itself, and very little on any substantive subject matter. His brief foray into the philosophy of science is both perceptive and bewildering. Yes, science has become a new religion to many people. If a scientist says something, it must be true! The problem here is that scientists are just as human as the rest of us. They're vulnerable to the same biases and mistakes as anyone. Unfortunately, neither the media nor the general public are usually well-informed or skeptical enough to ask a simple question: Is the claim within the domain of their expertise? Honest experts on TV are hard to find–ones who won't venture to guess at questions they're not qualified to answer. TV hosts usually badger them on until they give an answer, no matter how ill-informed. If they persist to evade the question, they probably won't be on TV again. But then his warnings extend to any corporate influence on science, and "The Vocabulary" that scientists use when they talk. Here, his postmodernism gets the best of him. Scientific research needs to be funded somehow. Corporate money is no more corrupting than the largesse of government grants. And every field has jargon that sounds foreign to outsiders. When they talk to others, they have to "dumb it down," and use much more verbose speech. It only makes sense that insiders use verbal shorthand when talking to each other, otherwise they'd waste time.4

I think part of the reason he disses the science is that he didn't get results he liked from the DNA testing. Besides normal genetic genealogy testing on himself and a couple cousins, most of his samples are from 150 year old hair. Many no longer contained any DNA, and the ones that did yielded conflicting results from different labs. I imagine that can be expected with samples that fragile. They might not have been able to extract a full sequence from any of the hair. I'm convinced that even after researching and writing an entire book on the subject of genetic genealogy, he still doesn't understand its limitations.

Most books I review are recommendations. I don't often read books I won't like. But once I start reading a book, I usually finish it, unless the writing or information are spectacularly bad. In this case, the premise sounded interesting. I'm only glad I found it in a public library, so it didn't cost me anything directly. Bottom line: Don't waste your money on The Genetic Strand, it's not even worth your time.

1. Edward Ball, The Genetic Strand: Exploring A Family History Through DNA (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 129-130.
2. Ball, The Genetic Strand, 86, 104.
3. Ball, The Genetic Strand, 189.
4. Ball, The Genetic Strand, 240-243.


  1. Such a hot button with me - people like this guy who write ignorant, sweeping generalizations about subjects they know nothing about - ack!

  2. Wow, his discription of genealogist, especially today, is way off base. They come from all walks of life. Yes I am middle class, but I'm not middle aged or elderly. I'm seeing many more in their 30's like I am joining the realm of genealogy these days. We are usually the one's that use a lot of technology to aid our research. I know there are many African American and Native American people researching their family. I do a lot of Native American research and have helped some of them. Amazing that people think they can write something they really know nothing about! Thanks for the heads up, I won't even both with that one.

  3. Don't know what book you read, but I loved it. http://mhollick.typepad.com/slovakyankee/2007/12/much-hairdo-about-nothing.html