Saturday, April 25, 2020

DNA Day Miracle Boy Turns 6

Last night I had my last bedtime story read to me by a 5 year old grandson. Today he turns 6. Because of current social distancing protocols, this bedtime story was shared through social media. Benj calls these his "Gerald" books. Some of you will know them as Mo Willems' award winning "Elephant and Piggie" series. For the uninitiated among my readers, Gerald is the elephant and apparently the favorite of Benj. Those of you with sharp eyes will see Gerald on my tablet below along with the top of the head of a still 5 year old.
Benj reads "Gerald" book to Papa with a little tech assist from Daddy
Some of you may remember some of the story of how he came to be and why I called him our DNA Day Miracle when he was born in 2014. If you've heard all this before, please indulge a proud Papa as he tells it again.  

My youngest grandson was first DNA tested BEFORE he was implanted into his mom. Since then he has been tested twice via swabs long before they became front page news everyday. He attempted a spit test but quickly demonstrated that he was too young. Every time he was asked to spit, instead he blew his nose. We will try that again very soon.  

A few years ago I tested his two older brothers who where then 7 and 9. When I was discussing the results with them, Noah observed, "If we tested Benj, his results would be more like mine than Simon's." I think his conclusion was based more on observations of phenotype than on genomic data. Never the less, ever eager to encourage interest in genetic genealogy, I made a deal with Noah. If he would follow Benj around for 45 minutes or so and make sure he didn't consume any food or drink, I would swab him to test Noah's hypothesis. Noah kept his part of the bargain and so did I. 

I could understand that based on hair alone, Noah's conclusion had merit. He and Benj shared straight hair and the patented Papa Dowell cowlick. Simon's hair is a little curlier for reasons we will explore below. 

The DNA test results were a revelation to me in one significant regard. Benj only inherited 15% of his atDNA from his maternal grandfather. Prior to this I had bought into the theory that we each inherited 25% of our atDNA from each grandparent. As I was to learn, we inherit 50% of our atDNA from each SET of grandparents but the amount we get from each individual grandparent can vary widely. Benj got 35% from his maternal grandmother. Simon's inheritance was more balanced getting 26% from his maternal grandfather and Noah 22%. Simon also inherited 24.1% of his atDNA from his paternal grandmother -- another potential source of curly hair -- compared to 21.7% for Noah and 22.6% for Benj. A fuller analysis of all this is another story for another day.

More to my main theme today, Benj probably got so little of his atDNA from his maternal grandfather because of his first DNA test when he was an 8 cell embryo. The purpose of that test was to select a healthy embryo that did not carry his maternal grandfather's potentially fatal Brugada gene. 

For those of you who are interested there was a 2 part special blog post that I wrote on DNA Day 6 year ago to explain why that day was so special to our family:

Part 1: Autosomal Dominant Inheritance: Brugada Syndrome.

Part 2: Our DNA Day Miracle 

In lieu of the traditional birthday party today Benj will be getting a noisy surprise drive by from his friends at 10:30 this morning. I hope Mother Nature cooperates and does not rain on his parade which will go on rain or shine. After the conclusion of that honking and yelling event, Benj will have 6 more "Gerald" books to read with Papa. 

Dowell brothers and nanny observing social distancing [from Grandpa] while Benj warms up to celebrate birthday.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

SAVE THE DATE: Requires advanced registration

FREE WEBINAR From SCGS, Saturday, May 2, 2020 at 10:00 AM Pacific


When Prussian Grandpa Contributed 
No DNA, Can We Find Out Who Did?

Free Webinar from SCGS

Saturday, May 2, 2020,
10:00 AM (Pacific Time)

Register here:
When three siblings did not receive any DNA from their supposed maternal grandfather, a systematic research plan traced the origin of the biological grandfather. Family oral histories, digital phasing, DNA testing of many extended family members and analysis of xDNA inheritance patterns were needed to find the real source of that missing DNA. It was from Donaghadee, Ireland rather than Prussia.

David Dowell, PhD, was a librarian for 35 years and a special investigative officer in the USAF for 4 years and has two degrees in history and two in library science. He has researched family histories since the 1960s. His most recent books are NextGen Genealogy: The DNA Connection (2015) and Crash Course in Genealogy (2011). Previously he taught “Genealogy Research” and “Ethics in the Information Age” at Cuesta College and chaired the Genealogy Committee and the Ethics Committee of the American Library Association. He blogs as “Dr. D Digs Up Ancestors” at and coordinates three DNA projects.


A handout will be available shortly before the presentation. A link will be included in a reminder that will be sent the day before the session.

2020 Webinar Times
1st Saturdays                                   3rd Wednesdays
10:00 AM Pacific                             6:00 PM Pacific
11:00 AM Mountain                        7:00 PM Mountain
12:00 PM Central                            8:00 PM Central
1:00 PM Eastern                              9:00 PM Eastern

A goal of the Southern California Genealogical Society is to offer educational opportunities to genealogists and family history enthusiasts everywhere. The Jamboree Extension Webinar Series helps delivers those opportunities.

The initial webcast of each session is offered to the public free of charge. 

Webinars are archived and available only to SCGS members as a benefit of membership in the society. The webinar archive can be found at

Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History comes to PBS

Dick Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter yesterday called our attention to a presentation first airing on PBS next Tuesday that should be of interest most of the readers of this blog:
Ken Burns Presents the Gene: An Intimate History will be broadcast on April 7 and 14 on PBS. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., and acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns have collaborated on the new documentary inspired by Mukherjee’s best-selling 2016 book, The Gene: An Intimate History.

The viewing guide on the PBS site gives the following preview:

The Gene: An Intimate History has 2 parts


“The Gene: An Intimate History” brings vividly to life the story of today’s revolution in medical science through present-day tales of patients and doctors at the forefront of the search for genetic treatments, interwoven with a compelling history of the discoveries that made this possible and the ethical challenges raised by the ability to edit DNA with precision.

PART 1: Dawn of the Modern Age of Genetics

PART 2: Revolution in the Treatment of Disease

This mini-series seems to have two things going for it as far as I'm concerned: Ken Burns and Siddhartha Mukherjee. Denise and I enjoy all the documentaries that Burns produces for PBS. In addition I found The Gene to be a fascinating book when I read it a couple of years ago. We have already set our DVR to record both episodes just to be sure we don't miss them. 


Dr. Mukherjee had a very interesting interview on CNN a couple of days ago about the COVID-19 virus. His article, "How Does the Coronavirus Behave Inside a Patient? We’ve counted the viral spread across peoples; now we need to count it within people." was published last week in the New Yorker and will be republished on Monday in the CORONAVIRUS CHRONICLES.

I hope you enjoy these presentations as much as I plan to.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Should we CELEBRATE genetic Ethnicity?

Over the years I've been one of the biggest critics of those who put great faith of ethnicity predictions based largely on our autosomal DNA test results. Some market research suggests that a majority of millennials who test do so primarily -- if not exclusively -- to get that information. That is why much if not most of the advertising media is aimed at getting the public to scratching this particular itch. You probably recall the dilemma of deciding whether lederhosen or a kilt are the appropriate attire for the next family reunion.

Those who know me know that I like to wear clothes that have something to say. Recently I was working with Alex Coss of Celebrate DNA™ to finalize the shirt order we had began discussing a few weeks ago at RootsTech. I have long admired the colorful and clean lines of Alex's designs but I couldn't decide which of the ethnicity estimates I have received from various labs I wanted to feature. I finally decided I wanted to go a slightly different direction and list the biggest chunk of DNA from each of the top 5 companies. In each case the "biggest" chunk identified was from the same general geographical area: "Great Britain, Ireland", "British Isles", "England, Wales","British & Irish" or "English". Alex was very accommodating of my idiosyncrasies.
Alex Coss' depiction of my 5 current ethnicity predictions.
At first blush these results seem greatly at odds with each other. However, closer examination suggests the results have a basic similarities. Since each company has it's own proprietary algorithm and method of conducting population studies, the bottom three have a certain similarity. One must understand how far back in history each company is trying to measure ancestral migration. 500 years? 5,000 years? 20,000 years? Those who tested several years ago with the National Genographic Project are used to seeing these longer time frames. My Genographic results were a little different than the more current ones above and with good reason. The projected timeline was much longer:

My closest ethnicity prediction by the Genographic project.

My second closest population according to Genographic.

But the attention span of most of us does not extend that far back. Those of us who are now North Americans are primarily interested on where our ancestors were living just before they boarded boats to immigrate here. Generally that is only one to four centuries ago. Even over that short timeline, national borders have changed and ancestors have migrated over the decades before they got to their ports of departure.

Fortunately these ethnicity predictions have been getting better as population geneticists learned more and testing companies improved their projection algorithms. Genetic genealogy is still a new and our learning curve is still steep. By the time some of you read this, my shirt may be out-of-date. FTDNA has announced that it will soon be updating its projections. Your can see a sneak preview of what to expect by reading Roberta Estes' post last month about what we can expect when myOrigins 3.0 is rolled out. Fortunately, when this happens we generally do not have to line up and retest. The reports of results from our original tests are just updated to reflect the new and hopefully more accurate predictions. In my case it may not significantly alter the results as shown on my new shirt; but who knows, I may be in for a surprise.

Below is what the shirt Alex created for me looks like. Read it quickly before the data is obsolete! Thanks Alex, I really like the shirt and my wife does too.
My shirt created by Celebrate DNA

Monday, January 27, 2020

Virtual Pass Schedule and FREE Live Streams for RootsTech 2020

Live Streaming Sessions

I hope many of you will be able to join me at #RootsTech in four weeks in Salt Lake City. If you are there I hope we get a chance to meet. If you are not able to work this into your travel schedule, the live streaming schedule has now been announced. For four days from Wednesday, February 26 to leap day on Saturday, February 29 you will be able to watch live at least five sessions from where ever else you are. Several of the best programs will be live streamed FREE of charge but you must register to get login information. These will include presentations by recognized experts on a wide variety of genealogical topics. Also celebrity key notes are included:

Virtual Pass Classes

Even if you are able to be in Salt Lake City, you may want to multiply your number of learning experiences and your options by purchasing a Virtual Pass. This will allow us to attend one session live and others from that same time slot at a later time. The 30 sessions covered by this pass will be available for a year after you have been notified they are available. This pass is available for $129 (US) if you are not attending the conference and for only $79 as an add on if you are already registered for RootsTech. A list of the presentations covered by this pass are available on the Virtual Pass page.   

Virtual Pass Classes (Beyond the Free Streaming classes)

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Genetic Genealogy identifies parent of fetus?

If you are looking for a medical science fiction thriller, Genesis may be of interest. This would be particularly true if you are a fan of Robin Cook from reading some of his earlier thirty or so medical crime novels. Published last month Genesis can stretch your mind a bit about the potential of genetic genealogy to solve crimes and not just cold crimes.

If you are not familiar with Cook's genre, he takes an emerging technology and fictionalizes its use or abuse when applied to medical practice. For example about five years ago he wrote Cell about using cell phones to advance personalized health care.  

In Genesis his protagonist is a brilliant but antisocial pathology resident who stumbles into genetic genealogy as she tries to identify a killer who has attempted to cover his tracks by masking them as fentanyl laced opioid overdoses. Armed only with Blaine Bettinger's The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genealogy and Tamar Weinberg's The Adoptee's Guide to DNA Testing: How to Use Genetic Genealogy to Discover Your Long-Lost Family she steamrolls in search of her killer who may be the father of a 10 week old fetus discovered during the autopsy of his mother.

From Cook's epilogue:

“Let’s look on the bright side,” he said.”
“I’m having trouble seeing the bright side,” Laurie said.
“It seems that you and Aria Nichols have added genetic genealogy to the forensic grab bag of tricks to make it possible to construct a perpetrator’s genome. If that’s not a bright side, I don’t know what is.”
That's enough of a spoiler.


Wednesday, November 13, 2019

RootsTech 2020 Scholarship Winner

I am pleased that there were 18 readers who applied for the free 4-day pass scholarship to attend the 10th Anniversary RootsTech Conference in Salt Lake City. The pass has a face value of $299. The lucky winner in the drawing was Roger Moffat. Congratulations Roger!

I hope to have the opportunity to meet Roger and many of the rest of you at the Conference February 26-29.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Win Scholarship for RootsTech 2020

You can have a chance to win a scholarship to help you attend RootsTech 2020 in Salt Lake City next February. The conference is the largest genealogical conference in the world. In 2018 more than 27,000 people from all 50 U.S. states and 47 different countries made the trek to Salt Lake City for this event and additional tens of thousands experienced parts of the event remotely. Later this month the first spin-off, RootsTech London 2019, will be held October 24-26. 

The 10th annual event to be held February 26-29, 2020, in Salt Lake City continues its focus on the marriage of technology to family history research. It includes a variety of learning experiences which organizers describe:

What Is RootsTech?
At RootsTech, we believe in the power of family—and discovering your family story has never been easier! RootsTech is a 4-day event held annually in Salt Lake City, Utah, dedicated to celebrating family and discovering family histories. With over 300 breakout sessions, an exciting lineup of celebrity speakers, and a gigantic expo hall, we’ve got something we’re sure you’ll love.
As a RootsTech Ambassador I have been authorized to offer one lucky reader a free all access 4 day registration to this event. This pass has a retail value of $299 although now for a limited time early registrations are available for $189. Included with this complimentary pass are:
Over 300 classes; Keynote / General sessions; Expo Hall and Special Evening events. It does NOT include any paid lunches or paid labs or workshops.
The winner of this pass will be drawn from readers of this blog who have completed the following minimal requirements by November 4th, 2019 at midnight US Central time in an email with "RootsTech Scholarship" in the subject box and addressed to (infodoc at

  1. Your statement that if you win you will be able to attend the Salt Lake City event; and
  2. One important learning objective for you during the conference.  
In case you are having trouble with ideas for your learning objective you might want to review this post from my archives.

My own most rewarding experience during RootsTech 2019 occurred in the Family History Library just up the street from the Salt Palace convention center. Del Chausse, a former faculty colleague of mine from my California days always meets me for a week in Salt Lake City surrounding this event. We spend any free time in library research and fellowship with other attendees. Last year during my "free time" in the library, I was able to break through a brick wall that had frustrated me for about a quarter of a century. I found the christening record for my wife's favorite grandmother. We knew that the ship records said she was from Prussia when her mother brought her as a toddler to Chicago in 1891. We were stymied in all our attempts to identify her village of origin. Martha had given us a false clue that both she and her parents were born in Leipzig. That turned out to be only about 500 kilometers off target. Apparently a couple of older family members knew something when they told me in confidence that Martha always lied about where she was from because she didn't want anyone to think she was Polish. Since that breakthrough last February. We have been able to extend both her paternal and maternal lines back at least two or three generations. But this is a tale for another day.

What is your learning objective during RootsTech 2020? You only need to list one to enter the drawing for a free registration pass. I look forward to hearing from you and seeing you in Salt Lake City.

Monday, April 1, 2019

DNA Learning Opportunities In Burbank

Back in 2013 the International Society of Genetic Genealogists (ISOGG) worked with the Southern California Genealogical Society (SCGS) to append a special pre-Jamboree DNA Thursday leading into the usual pattern of Genealogy Jamboree. This allowed a forum for DNA topics which had not generally been covered within the traditional Jamboree series of program topics. This has now become an annual tradition. At the same time DNA related programs have been included within the Friday through Sunday programing. This year there are at least a dozen DNA related programs offerings during the main Jamboree weekend schedule. THESE ARE IN ADDITION TO THE SPECIAL DNA THURSDAY TOPICS! 


Writing in the Jamboree blog, Megan Lee lists the weekend DNA dozen. You can check out her full post by clicking here. The 12 programs she features are these:

DNA Presentations during the Jamboree 50th Birthday Bash:
On early Sunday morning, I will be presenting:  "Does Using GEDmatch to Solve Cold Case Jeopardize Our Genetic Privacy?"
I will also be part of the late Friday afternoon panel  "Meet the DNA Experts". Attendees at these two events must be registered for Jamboree. 

If a registration fee is too rich for your budget, on Friday morning from 10:30 to 12:00, I will be one of the table hosts for the 12 JamboFREE World Round Table DNA sessions:

DNA World Roundtables
Free! A unique opportunity to talk to an expert and learn from fellow attendees. Twelve current topics in DNA; twelve tables with a table host and 9 participants; ask questions, seek answers and discuss. Get help on topics such as: Beginning to Intermediate DNA Tools; Build Your Pedigree with the Help of Autosomal DNA; DNA Testing with Emphasis on VA and the Carolinas (including descendants of slaves and slave owners); Follow your Male Line with Y-DNA (emphasis on the I Haplogroup); Genetic Genealogy for Beginners; How to order a Test for Paternal and Maternal Ancestry; Introduction to Genetic Genealogy for African Americans; Introduction to DNA Painter for your Autosomal Tests; Solving Unknown Parentage; Welcome to DNA - What Help Do You Need?; Which DNA Test is Best to Meet Your Needs? Beg., Int., Adv.
I'd be pleased to meet you at any of these three programs. 

While the above sessions are going on, there will be more traditional genealogical research programs from which you can chose.  

For those of you seeking a total immersion in DNA, Thursday is planned with you in mind. This is a separate registration from that for the main Jamboree:

Genetic Genealogy 2019 - Thursday, May 30

  • World-class Full-Day Conference
  • Get in on the Latest Discoveries
  • 25 Classes and 18 Speakers
  • For All Levels of Experience
  • Can attend any session when you pay for the entire conference (no session reservations required)
A detailed list of these activities may be found here. Onward to Burbank!

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Chicken Little or Pogo?

Are you a disciple of Chicken Little or of Pogo?

Most of you will recall that Chicken Little, based on very little evidence, ran to warn her neighbors that the sky was falling. 

This fable does not end well for most of her community who heeded her warning. In the 1823 Danish version (Thiele), we are told the fox, "Raev Skraev runs with them into the wood and eats them one by one." (Wikipedia)

I hope members of the genetic genealogy community are not becoming disciples of Chicken Little every time we hear the term law enforcement and genealogy DNA databases in the same sentence. The issues involved are far more complex than that -- both legally and ethically. Not all of us will arrive at the same answers on such nuanced issues but we can have a very destructive effect on our entire community by sounding off in a manner that risks throwing out our cherished baby because of some allegedly suspicious bath water.


In the current debate about the use of genealogical databases by law enforcement, it seems to me that many genetic genealogists are our own worst enemies. We don't want to share our toys. We posit everything as an us versus them dilemma. But, is it really? Walt Kelley in his 1971 Earth Day, comic strip had Pogo famously pointing out, "Yes son, we have met the enemy and he is us." (Wikipedia

Are our own sometimes inflammatory and oft repeated comments scaring potential testers away? Those of us who have been part of this community for more than a decade will recall we have always had individuals who were reluctant to test. Some have flat out refused to test because of concerns that "they" would get my DNA on file. This concern did not emerge for the first time when DeAngelo was arrested as a suspect in the Golden State Killer cases. It will continue to exist far into the future. 

Should I test? Should I urge others to test/not test? This is NOT a question for which one universal answer best serves the needs for each and everyone of us all the time and in all situations.

Why do we test DNA?

Although there are may variations, most of us consider testing because we or someone we know has a curiosity about one of the three following questions.

1. From where did my ancestors come? Market research suggests that more half of millennials who test do so for this reason. With this knowledge advertisements on TV target the need to know one's ethnicity. For example, then one would know whether to wear a kilt or lederhosen to the next family gathering.

2. Can knowledge of the information in my genes inform me about health risks for me and/or for my descendants?

Both questions 1 and 2 can be explored without direct one-one comparison of DNA test results. The DNA of the person being tested is being compared only against an aggregate of large groups of other test takers. Results can be received without exposing the test taker to the eyes of other individual takers.

3. Would you like to connect with others who share parts of your genetic heritage? This is true genetic genealogy. True genetic genealogy is a contact sport. The entire purpose is to contact others for the purpose of filling in gaps in our family trees.

Information seeking vs Privacy?

It's more complicated than that. In the interest of full disclosure, I was dealing with these issues long before DNA testing came on the scene. Half a century ago I was a criminal investigator in the United States Air Force for 4 years during the Vietnam War. During that time I came in contact with colleagues at all levels of law enforcement -- local, state and federal. Most of them were dedicated to keeping our communities safe and respecting the rights of all -- guilty or innocent. As with any group there were a few exceptions.

Since then I have spent 35 years as an academic librarian. My ethic as a librarian was to protect the right of individuals to inquire about any topic about which they were curious and to do so in a manner that protected the privacy of the inquirer. During that time I chaired the Professional Ethics Committee of the American Library Committee.

I later created and taught a credit college course called Ethics in the Information Age. It was within the context of that course that I developed the first version the following cartoon to reflect the complex nature of this ethical dilemma of trying to find the right balance between technological possibilities and human values:

The "RIGHT thing to do" shifts as emphasis is placed on different Rights!
Initially the bottom arrow in my cartoon was focused on the need to protect children from certain information -- particularly on the Internet. After 9/11 and the Patriot Act, the focus shifted to National Security. More recently I have localized this to group or community security. 

In exploring these issues there is not a "one size fits all" ethical answer. As I blogged recently,
There is no universal answer that is “RIGHT” for all of us in all situations for all time.
In that same post I summarized the little public opinion information we have available to date. In research published in the respected journal Science, it  appears that as many as 91% of the US general public may be in favor of allowing law enforcement to use genetic genealogy databases to investigate violent crimes and locate missing persons. This positive approval rate drops considerably when there is other motivation.

Perhaps some among us are more likely to play Chicken Little than are the general public. Perhaps Pogo was right.

Perhaps the legal and ethical environment is unformed to give us the guidance we need. The post Golden State Killer cases have not yet been litigated in court and subjected to legal challenge. In a couple of cases the suspect has plead guilty and been sentenced to lengthy prison terms. This does not necessarily indicate where the preponderance of legal opinions will settle.

Ethical standards and legal standards are often in variance. We as a society need to rethink what our standards should be. First we need to consider whether or not we are even asking the appropriate questions.

David Brin on surveillance cameras:

Two decades ago science fiction author and privacy advocate David Brin suggested we tend to look at the privacy issue from the wrong perspective. Although his argument was articulated about surveillance cameras in public places, his arguments apply to our current debate about government access to DNA databases. Back then Brin warned, "The cameras are coming. They're getting smaller and nothing will stop them. The only question is: who watches whom?"

Kevin Drum continued this argument five years ago. He asserted, "Privacy Is Dead. Long Live Transparency!"
Can we save privacy?
I call this the “David Brin question,” after the science fiction writer who argued in 1996 that the issue isn’t whether surveillance will become ubiquitous—given technological advances, it will—but how we choose to live with it. Sure, he argued, we may pass laws to protect our privacy, but they’ll do little except ensure that surveillance is hidden ever more deeply and is available only to governments and powerful corporations. Instead, Brin suggests, we should all tolerate less privacy, but insist on less of it for everyone. With the exception of a small sphere within our homes, we should accept that our neighbors will know pretty much everything about us and vice versa. And we should demand that all surveillance data be public, with none restricted to governments or data brokers. Give everyone access to the NSA’s records. Give everyone access to all the video cameras that dot our cities. Give everyone access to corporate databases. (Full article here)

Chicken Little or Pogo?

I am NOT advocating that we or our surrogates, the DNA testing companies, should open genealogy database to anyone who flashes a badge. I did not open our library circulation records to homicide detectives who wanted to know what one of our college students had been reading even though she was being investigated for killing her husband. It would have been against California law to do so without a properly authorized judicial subpoena. It would also have been against my professional ethic as a librarian who believes that out clients have a right to research and read without fear of intimidation.  

I have no reason to believe that Barbara Rea-Venter and CeCe More have done anything other than a great public service in helping police identify viable suspects in some very horrific criminal cases. However, over the years I'm not sure the same could be said about every genetic genealogist who cozied up to police and appeared to seek the spotlight. 

Are we asking the right questions? Are we helping advance the cause of the genetic genealogy community? Are we the ones who are scaring away potential test takers? Are we establishing ethical guidelines that will help society find the appropriate balance between the various RIGHTS?