Sunday, December 14, 2014

Book Review: The Invisible History of the Human Race

Wow -- what a great book!  I just finished reading The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally.

It's kind of hard to explain what the book is about, exactly.  Kenneally approaches the idea of genetics by starting with an overview of human ideas about inheritance, ancestry, race and genealogy.  In some of her early chapters, genealogists help the bad guys, and an in some of the chapters, genealogists help the good guys.  She looks at situations where an obsession with bloodlines leads to genocide, and she also looks at situations where the denial of ancestral information is used as punishment.  I learned some very interesting and disturbing things about the eugenic movement.

Then she moves into history of DNA testing, and the expansion of what can be tested, who is tested, and what kinds of things can be learned.  There's a lot of good background in here about the differences between deep history and recent generations, between Y, mtDNA, and atDNA, and between medical testing and genealogical testing.

One thing I appreciated was that each chapter explores one self-contained idea, while fitting nicely into the overall structure.  This makes it good for bed-time reading, and for making a topic this complex digestible.  I also appreciated the mix of personal anecdotes and scholarly research.

This is not, repeat not, a book that will tell you what DNA test to take or how to interpret your results.  It is, however, a good book for getting a sense of the forest of genetic testing before you start losing yourself in the trees of centimorgans and IBD vs IBS.

Overall, I enjoyed this book immensely, and highly recommend it.  And not just for genealogists.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The National Institute of Standards and Technology Digital Archive

This is a site that sounds dull but turns out to be fascinating...The National Institute of Standards and Technology (yawn, right?) is digitizing its archives -- publications and photographs.  And the photo collections include their collection of aeronautical instruments and testing procedures, appliance efficiency testing projects, a collection of atomic clocks, automobile testing, and photos of the 1939 project to figure out how to preserve the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution.  I didn't have the nerve to view the collection of dental research photos.  There are pictures of crystals and glass plate photography and space beads and, well, they're up to more than 150 photo collections.

In short -- if you have scientists or engineers (or dentists) in your family, you might well find a photo of them, or of tools and instruments they might have used, in this collection.  And, as the Legal Genealogist is always reminding us, photo collections produced by US government agencies are generally copyright free!


Herbert J. Reed of the Electrochemistry Section measuring specific gravity on a battery

Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Review: Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA

The last genetic genealogy book on the list!  Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA, by Richard Hill isn't really a how-to book.  Instead, it's a narrative about one adoptee's search for his family.

The good: This is a story with a couple of happy "endings," as Hill was able to identify both biological parents and develop good relationships with family.  The search starts in the days of phone calls and letters and ends with internet searches and DNA, and demonstrates the wide net an adoptee must cast for any possible clue.

The bad: Not to diminish Hill's work, but his case seems relatively easy -- it appears that he was just about the only person who didn't know, the adoption was handled through family connections as opposed to an agency, and only the government seems to have been trying to hide it.  A huge percentage of the challenge came from logistical issues caused by the passage of time, such as tracking down people who had moved or died, rather than outright secrecy or lost records.   And, it appears that a bunch of the work was done by other people, largely a volunteer with an adoptee support group.

My takeaways:  This is a huge emotional minefield, not to be entered lightly.  Adoptee support groups are really important.  And we really need to change the laws around adoption and official records; I find the idea of certifying a falsified birth certificate repugnant as both a genealogist and a citizen.

I would suggest reading this book as a way to prepare for the mental and emotional components of an adoptee search, but not as a handbook for learning techniques for conducting such a search.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Don't Forget to Look for Digital Books!

After receiving an email mentioning a 987 page (!) genealogy of one of my families, I was feeling sad that it's out of print.  Googling didn't find anything helpful, and WorldCat.org suggested helpfully that the nearest copy was in a library 187 miles away.  But...clicking on the Editions link in WorldCat brought up a list of 4 editions of the book, one of which was said to be digital.  And clicking on that brought up a link to the Hathi Trust website, where the entire book is digitized, searchable, and free for anyone.

Lesson: WorldCat.org is your friend.

And, if you're wondering, the book is The Basye Family in the United States, by Otto Basye, and the link is http://hdl.handle.net/2027/wu.89062852876

Oddly enough, while Google didn't find the digital version of the book, it did find a description of Otto's papers, which were donated to the State Historical Society of Missouri.  Apparently there are approximately 4 shelf-feet of materials, largely the research for the book.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Book Review: DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America by Bryan Sykes

DNA USA, by Bryan Sykes, is the next book in my genetic reading pile.  It's a lot bigger than the others, and some of it is worth the extra heft.  The book is about Sykes' attempt to follow up a project mapping the genetics of Britain with a project mapping the genetic history of the United States.  It's divided into three parts:  a review of the science and the history of the science, a narrative about the "road trip" he took while working on the project, and a very quick review of the results.

The good:  The first section of the book is very interesting.  There's a lot more here about Native American and African-American deep genetic history than I've seen in the other books I've read, and it's very easy to understand.  Sykes writes just enough about his British projects to ground the reader and give a sense of why the USA version of this project would be hard.  There's also some good history of the relationships between Native Americans and genetics research, and African Americans and medical researchers, that shows why large segments of the US community might not find DNA testing to be a good thing, and might justifiably consider it a very bad thing.  And, finally, some of the results he gets, placed in context with the results of other studies, illustrate some very interesting points about race in America.

The bad: The second section is a drag.  Sykes can't seem to decide whether it's a story about taking a road trip with his son, who's about to start college, or a story about how depressing Indian reservations are, or a description of a genetics project.  As a result, it mostly fails in every respect.  In the first case, he seems to have missed the fact that the trips in the great road trip movies he keeps referencing were, in general, taken by car, not by train.  Descriptions of train stations do not a great road trip story make, even if he tells us what's on his son's iPod. Second, while it's useful to learn about the complicated and messed up history of Native Americans and genetics research, it's not really interesting to read about tours he took in which he neither discusses genetics research nor conducts any while on Native reservations.  And finally, after making a nicely convincing case in the first section about how hard a genetics study would be in the US, he does what couldn't even be called a half-assed job of gathering samples -- he, for example, blows off visiting the entire South after gathering a couple of samples from some people from Atlanta that he meets in a hotel bar in San Francisco.  The whole second section is self-indulgent and slow.  And, since he doesn't have very many samples and he's wasted a ton of pages in the second section, the third section feels both rushed and incomplete.

Unfortunately, I can't recommend that you just read the first section and skip the other two, because he buries some very interesting things in with the tedious.  Skimming is your friend, here.

My takeaways:  I need to investigate African Ancestry, a DNA testing company; I wonder how it compares to FamilyTreeDNA, 23andMe, and Ancestry.com.  I need to read up on some of the ethics issues involved in Native American and African American DNA testing and make sure they get covered in our DNA SIG meetings at the library.

...And I should never invite Bryan Sykes and Spencer Wells to the same party.  Although it's covered in pretty language, both of them say some pretty nasty things about each other in their books.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Book Review: Deep Ancestry by Spencer Wells

Today's genetic genealogy reading is Deep Ancestry, by Spencer Wells.  I wanted to read this one after watching his RootsTech presentation.

This book isn't exactly about genetic genealogy; rather, it's about the ancestral migration of humans out of Africa and throughout the rest of the world.  This is the book to read to understand what it means to get a mtDNA haplogroup result of, say, J.  Wells covers both the history of the science and the history of the migrations, tying in archaeology and anthropology where appropriate.  He also discusses the Genographic Project, which he directs; its purpose is to significantly increase the number of DNA tests done by members of population groups that can provide more depth to the samples used to track those migrations, including indigenous groups throughout the world.

The good: Nicely written, good balance between science and humanities, very clear explanations of the science and the history.  I feel much clearer on topics like genetic drift and why genetic Eve lived so much longer ago than genetic Adam.

The bad: Written in 2006 (published in 2007), still early in the project, so there weren't any results to describe.  Presumably, there are lots of very cool stories to be told now.

My takeaways: This would be a good base for understanding all those news articles about genetic discoveries.  But check it out from the library -- save your money for the new book I hope Wells is writing.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Book Review: DNA & Genealogy, by Colleen Fitzpatrick and Andrew Yeiser

Number three in the genetic genealogy reading pile -- DNA & Genealogy, by Colleen Fitzpatrick and Andrew Yeiser.  A couple of years newer than the Pomery book, this was published in 2005.  So far, I have to say it's my favorite.

The good:  Wow -- much clearer explanations of...well, almost everything!  The authors start at the very beginning of what DNA is, how it is passed between generations, how it mutates, and provide very clear explanations, with diagrams and metaphors.  They include sidebars to talk about genetic topics you might have been wondering about, like twins, Down syndrome and sickle cell anemia.  Then they move on to what DNA testing actually tests, how to compare your results to someone else, and how to compare your results to a group of someone elses, like a surname study group; again, with specific examples and lots of diagrams and charts.  To cap it all off, they even explain Bayes' Theorem and how it relates to Most Recent Common Ancestor calculations, although only probability geeks like myself will read that particular appendix.

The bad: 2005 was a long time ago, in genetic genealogy terms.  This book covers Y-DNA and mtDNA very well, and autosomal DNA not at all.  In addition, there are a couple of chapters that go into a lot of detail about testing companies, most of which have merged or gone out of business.  It's also a little vague on the practical usefulness of mtDNA testing, although I think that may be because the practical usefulness of mtDNA testing is, well, still a little vague, so I'm not going to hold this against them.

My takeaway:  Unless something better comes along, this is going to be the book I'm going to recommend at the library for people who are brand new to DNA testing, although that recommendation will come with the caveat that it omits one major type of test.  I think with this book under your belt, the new book by Emily Aulicino will make a lot more sense, and will fill in the autosomal testing gap.   Librarian happy dance!