Thursday, March 4, 2010

I'm Puzzled by DNA Claims on "Faces of America"

UPDATED 5 March, 10 p.m.: Blaine Bettinger on The Genetic genealogist blog has posted an accurate summary of the DNA tests and discussions shown on this show. Please see his post titled Faces of America and Genetic Genealogy Testing. I really got some of the details wrong in my original post - my apologies. The lesson learned here is "take notes." Thank you, Blaine!

I watched the four episodes of "Faces of America" on PBS over the past four Wednesday nights - and tried really hard to follow what was said by the subjects, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and by the analysts. I realized last night that I should have taken notes...

I agree with some other genea-bloggers that the episodes were disjointed - each episode had a common theme and not every subject was included in each episode. While we saw glimpses of the "family tree" of the subjects, the research process was not the focus - the theme for each episode was the focus, and the subjects "just sat there and emoted" in brief video clips about the family history book compiled for them. Gates essentially played the "revealer of ancestral truths" and really enjoyed the role. How much better would the show have been if the subjects had been able to accompany Gates to the ancestral homelands rather than just see pictures and read from their book?

Last night, there were at least three sets of DNA results provided to almost all of the subjects (Louise Erdrich refused to have DNA tests done).

The first was the Knome "Know Thyself" company that does a full human genome on subjects. They performed and analyzed this for Henry Louis Gates and for his father. There have been only 50 or so individual genomes sequenced so far because of the complexity and the costs. For me, the most impressive result from this application was the ability to see which genes were inherited from Gates' mother and from his father.

The second DNA test result shown was the Autosomal test, wherein the company 23andMe (I think!) analyzed the subjects' DNA and estimated the percentage of European, Asian, and African genetic makeup for each subject. The most useful result is probably identifying the potential medical problems inherited from your ancestors.

The third set of tests was the most intriguing to me, mainly because some of the results did not make sense. I believe that the text compared the DNA of each pair of subjects, and claimed that some of them had a common ancestor within the last 250 years (less than ten generations). Was this the 23andMe's Relative Finder test? The results that made little or no sense to me were:

* Steven Colbert and Elizabeth Alexander were matched - the intrigue for me wasn't because Stephen is "100% white man" according to the tests, or that Elizabeth was 66% European, it was that there would be a match in the last 250 years. I guess it's possible that one or more of Elizabeth's slaveholding ancestors came from the same family as one of Stephen's colonial American, French or Irish ancestors, but it seems a stretch to me. I would understand 500 years or 1,000 years.

* Yo-Yo Ma and Eva Longoria were matched - the intrigue here for me is that Yo-Yo's ancestry is 100% Chinese - he is the emigrant...which means that one of Eva's ancestors had to come from China in the last 250 years and from Yo-Yo's ancestral families. I can see it if the claim is 2,000 years past, or maybe even 1,000 years past. Eva had 27% Asian (including Native-American) ancestry, so there should definitely be some link, but 250 years is just not believable to me.

* Was the third pair Mario Batali and Meryl Streep? Mario is 100% Italian heritage, and Meryl had a significant English and colonial American ancestry, but we didn't see much of her European heritage lines. While there were some Italian immigrants before 1800 into America, I doubt that these two have a common ancestor in the past 250 years. Again, within 1,000 years, probably no doubt.

These comparisons were made by comparing the autosomal DNA collected from the subjects.

I am not an expert in the DNA and genetic subjects, and I hope that some of my genea-blogging colleagues who are experts in DNA and genetics can sort this out for me. I used Google to try to see if there was information about the test comparisons but the subject must be too new, or my Googling skills too primitive, to help me this afternoon.

As a genealogist, I would like to see the family trees, and the DNA Autosomal results, posted along with the profiles on the Faces of America website.

UPDATED 4 p.m. Martin set me straight on Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols in comments...Streep has Dutch Jewish heritage. He also said that Alexander's mother was white, so perhaps there is a realtively close connection with Colbert. So Alexander's mother's ancestry should be findable, as should Colbert's, if they are American cousins. But probably not if they're Irish cousins. The puzzler for me is still Ma-Longoria. Thanks for the help, Martin.


Cindy said...

Randy - thanks for this post which pretty much sums up my confusion as well. I have NEVER investigated nor had a great understanding of DNA research and certainly I'm no scientist but I too was confused with the fact that they had so many "matches" among the small number of people in the group, especially with the "recent" connection they were claiming. I agree totally that it's entirely possible in 500 or 1000 years, but they clearly didn't say that. I think many people would be very interested to see the trees that were provided, they just didn't focus enough on that part of the process.

Martin said...

Elizabeth Alesander's mother is white. So it's believable that she and Colbert have a close ancestor in common. Meryl Streep was matched with Mike Nichols not Batali. Meryl is patrilineally Dutch Jew. So that made sense. Batali was linked with Queen Noor. They only did 1/4 of her ancestry (the Syrian christian grandfather) so who knows what the other 3/4 is. If the DNA test is reliable, then Eva Longoria must descend from a Chinese railroad laborer whose ancestry is tied in with Yo Yo Ma's. That was the only explanation I could come up with.

I'm a lucky person who knows the names of all my 64 great-great-great-great grandparents. Even then there are people with either Slovak, Scottish or Irish or Scots-Irish ancestry that I could share an ancestor with that I couldn't prove. With a surname I'm not familiar with either.

Patti Hobbs said...

I was surprised, too, but not so surprised to think about it very long. The part that bothers me the most is how the participants are presented with so much data that can take us years and years to uncover. It might lead to unrealistic expectations among new genealogists. The show obviously did not have the money and time constraints that many of us have. No process is shown or alluded to.

Linda McCauley said...

This episode was definitely hard to follow. If they were going to present DNA results showing several of the participants share a common ancestor, then they should have done the research to determine exactly who the common ancestors were. Validating the DNA results with actual research would have given a lot of credibility to the DNA test they used instead of leaving the feeling that this many matches in such a small sample was just too good to be true.

Gremalkin said...

I've always been disappointed with Gates's specials. He is so lauded and has all these creds, but his heedless-puppy enthusiasm and lack of scientific rigor remind me of Merv Griffin trying to be professorial.

It really was embarrassing when he went on about finding his Turkish celeb (Oz) shared a DNA marker with his Ashkenazic celeb (Nichols), because, oh criminey sakes, a Jew and a Moslem were proven to be related, (he said)just like Abraham's sons in the Bible. Abraham was not a Jew. The first Jews were the children of Abraham's great-grandchild Judah. Abraham was 'ha 'Ibri'(meaning either 'the Beyonder' or 'descendant of Heber' a Semitic patriarch)='the Hebrew'. Abraham's son Isaac by his half-sister (royal incest was honored then for the same unfortunate reason some mistaken breeders of domestic animals employ it today)continued as the pure Hebrew, while Abraham's half-Hamitic/Egyptian son Ishmael became the legendary progenitor of the Arabs. Neither the Arabs nor anyone else would know of the 'Mohammedan' tradition for thousands of years to come. In the middle of the Middle Ages, the ancient and widespread culture of many racial streams mixing and matching across the Steppes and peaks from Paeonia to Mongolia, called Tilgarramu, Tyekker, Togarmah, Tocharian, Scyth, Hun,
(etc.) and ultimately TURK, had a great many of their varied tribesmen convert both to Judaism (the Khazars) and to Islam (the Ghuzz and others). These peoples are considered children of JAPHETH (see Genesis 10 & 1 Chronicles 1, and look up 'the Khazar Letter'). The big case for Semites among the Turks would be largely Lost Tribes of Israel speculation, such as the Ephtalites (also spelled with initial N or H)/White Huns being remnants of the Tribe of Naphtali. 'Ashkenazic' comes from Lake Ascanius, a Roman Imperial park near what is now Istanbul, the name being shared with a Teucrian ancestor of Julius Caesar, named after the notoriously blond As/Aesir/Ossetian tribe who eventually gulled Goth and Northern Germanic types into thinking them gods and calling the land (A)scan(d)ia, 'tis said.

There is no such thing as 'racial purity'. The simplemindedness of saying one's ancestors are 'African', 'European', or 'Asian' as if the continents were ever encased in bell jars until recently! It makes no sense, and is certainly at odds with other works on DNA markers and heritage, including PBS's own fine RACE: THE POWER OF ILLUSION.

Abba-Dad said...

Actually, I believe that they found links between all 11 of the cousins in the group. Sketchy scientific results IMO. I think this part of the show was geared towards fantasy rather than reality. Having that many connections in such a small sample size is very strange. Got to 43:57 here to see the connections:

Martin said...

follow up: Didn't the researchers say that the test was to find someone within 10 generations or 250 years? This infers that they are equating a generation with 25 years. That's a low average over time. If I'm generation #1, my tenth generation on my mother's side is born in 1685 and on my father's side in 1670. So, it's much closer to 30 years per generation probably. Next, at the 10th generation level (counting me a #1), there are 512 possible ancestors. I know of only one person who knows all those people at that level (and he's French Canadian). Not even modern royalty can do that. There are holes in the Queen's ancestry through her mother and likewise through Prince Philip's European ancestry. It is exceedingly rare to know the width of one's ancestry to this extent. So, again, it makes sense even statistically that any two people who each have 512 ancestors probably have a very good chance of sharing one ancestor in common given some commonality. In this case they had 12 individuals and even then, they didn't match them all. Consider the birthday paradox. You only need a random group of 23 people for there to be a 50% chance that two of them will share the same birthday. Same thing here. You can almost take the DNA science out of the problem and use probability.

Tamura Jones said...


Being able to document all names for ten or twelve generations isn't all that rare. In many Western countries, BMD registrations started around 1600 or 1650, that is 350 to 400 years ago.

- Tamura

Martin said...

Dear Tamura,

I respectfully disagree. Perhaps Randy can ask the question. How many people who read his blog know all their ancestors in all lines up to the level of 10 generations (counting yourself as generation #1). That is 512 ancestors. I'm guessing it's maybe 1 or 2% of people doing genealogy.

Tamura Jones said...


That few people do know doesn't change the fact that they could know.
Do not confuse not knowing right now with being unable to find out.

There is always the odd unknown father and burned down church, but for many children living today it is perfectly possible to document more than ten generations.

- Tamura

Patti Hobbs said...

Tamura, when I re-read Martin's post, he didn't say that it wasn't possible or couldn't be done. He just said it was rare. I agree with him. I'm not saying it's impossible either. Maybe it depends on where your ancestors were, but there are almost no birth, marriage, and death records in much of New York and Pennsylvania until 1883-5. I have a lot of ancestors from those places.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Alexander's mother, Adele Logan Alexander, is NOT white. See “Homelands and Waterways: The American Journey of the Bond Family, 1846-1926.”

Tamura Jones said...


Read his post again? Martin did not just say it is rare, but also suggested that it is nigh impossible.
He specifically claimed that "not even modern royalty can do that", very much implying that the common person can forget about it.
Truth is that the common person in the Western world stands a good chance of there being documentation for all ancestors back to 1650.

- Tamura

Patti Hobbs said...


I disagree with your assessment of Martin's post still.

You said, "BMD registrations started around 1600 or 1650, that is 350 to 400 years ago." I said that Pennsylvania and New York did not have BMD until the late 1800s. Are you not aware that what you said about BMD registrations being around since 1600 or 1650 is just simply not true?

Patti Hobbs said...

I said, "Are you not aware that what you said about BMD registrations being around since 1600 or 1650 is just simply not true?"

I did not word that correctly. That may be true for some places, but it is not true for many places. Even in places where there are records required, there are times when people apparently did not comply or the records were lost. I've been doing genealogy for only ten years, but I've run across a multitude of instances where there are no BMD registrations and many instances of people not appearing in the records that were recorded and even yet ... someone moving from one area to another, but you don't know where they came from to know where to look.

n/a said...

"Meryl is patrilineally Dutch Jew."


Drewsifer said...

Not a very scientific rejoinder, whatsoever. For one, Alexander and Colbert could be related through a consensual relationship; not even close to all genetic mixing with African Americans in the US was under the auspices of slavery, and any student of American history could note that Irish specifically, and even some Cajun french would have been among such populations who 'mixed' antebellum, and in the case of the Irish, after to war.

Other wise, you don't even make any reasonably convincing points why these items could not be true, but, merely, "I don't beleive it"... not very compelling.

Alexis Preatori said...

Randy, don't worry too much if they are related 500 years ago based on their DNA. They say Yo-Yo Ma and Eva has the same bloodline. It's just unbelievable.

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Anonymous said...

Hey there So in answer to why Eva Longoria has Chinese blood has nothing to do with the railroad workers. Most people have very limited knowledge of the history of is very much a melting pot.

You have to go back over 440 years of Asian/ Chinese habitation in Mexico and look at the history of the Chinese in Mexico it is a very long history much longer than people think The Manila Galleon Trade lasted (1565–1815)bought the Chinese and the Chinese craft ware as well as Chinese slaves into Mexico and Latin America.

Read further about the Legend of LA CHINA POBLANA a Chinese woman brought from the Philipines as part of the slave trade. There is a dance as well it is VERY well known in Mexico.


Anonymous said...

La china poblano actually refers to an indian woman who was brought over to mexico by pirates. Back then, all asians regardless of ethnicity were referred to as chinese.

Ria said...

Native American is a blanket term for mongoloid ppl who migrated from Asia. If you look at various natives from both north and south america you will see that some of them look Chinese while others will have the same hair but different nose shape...whay we call mongoloids. They are Asian too but not Chinese. So it is very possible for Eva to be related to a Chinese person and I have seen a good number of Mexican people with an obvious Asian ancestry, not just Native American.