Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Review: Trace Your Roots With DNA

As this is the first anniversary of this genealogy related blog, I pondered on what topic I would discuss on this auspicious occasion. Having just finished reading Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak and Dr. Ann Turner, I thought it would be fitting to do a book review at this juncture. Published in October 2004, the book is dated in some respects; however, most of its information is still valid six years after the fact.


I purchased this book back in November in anticipation of reading it during some downtime when I was getting my car serviced and later the same evening while on a business trip. The book is laid out into five sections with a total of 11 chapters and three appendices. This arrangement of sections and chapters is as follows:

Part I: The Fundamentals
Chapter 1: If you are new to Genealogy
Chapter 2: Genetic Essentials
Part II: Testing Options Explained
Chapter 3: Male Bonding: Y Chromosome
Chapter 4: Maternal Legacy: Mitochondrial DNA
Chapter 5: Around the World: Geographic Origins
Chapter 6: Next of Kin: Close Relationships
Part III: How to do it Yourself
Chapter 7: Joining or Running a Project
Chapter 8: Finding Prospects
Chapter 9: Contacting and Courting Participants
Chapter 10: Interpreting and Sharing Results
Part IV: The Future
Chapter 11: What’s Next?
Appendix A: Genealogical Resources
Appendix B: DNA Testing Companies
Appendix C: Glossary


Those familiar with genealogy and DNA testing will immediately recognize the names of the authors of this volume. Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak has taken her passion and has made it a career.

I became familiar with her work when she was the Chief Family Historian at Ancestry.com. She has authored several books and has contributed to numerous television shows about genealogy and genetic testing including most recently “Who do you think you are?” series, which returns in a few weeks. She authored the companion book for this successful NBC show.

It is simply amazing to enumerate all of the genealogy projects to which Megan has contributed. One would have to be in a vacuum not to recognize her unusual double surname moniker and the work that she has done for over 30 years.

Ann Turner, a medical doctor, is no stranger to genetic genealogy having founded the RootsWeb GENEALOGY-DNA mailing list. In addition, she is a regular contributor to DNA-Forums and the discussion rooms at 23andMe and Family Tree DNA. Dr. Turner has also authored software to aid in the understanding DNA results. Some of these tools are available on her DNACousins.com web site.

When I ordered my copy of Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree, I had already done some homework via extensive reading on the subject. Although a student of the social sciences and the humanities and not the hard sciences, I was confident in my knowledge of the basics of DNA testing and had a grasp on most things except perhaps the more scientific aspects of DNA.

Like many others who have had their DNA tested and done a little reading, I thought I was an expert in the field. Wrong, I am still very much a novice in this realm.

Genealogy in itself is replete with armchair experts and I began finding numerous folks with the same skill set I had (or less) self proclaiming their expertise in the various forums that I was reading. The Internet fosters such self proclaimed experts and one must weed out those who are from those who think they are.

One real expert, however, is Ann Turner. She always provided helpful information and gently corrected members of these forums when we were off base in regards to issues regarding DNA testing. Dr. Turner has also assisted me personally in understanding areas where I had some confusion, and she has shared some utilities to help me to better comprehend my family's test results.

Suggestions to the Reader

I began reading the book on November 16 and in that one day finished nearly half of it. I will admit that I skipped the first chapter, as I have been tracing my family since 1978. While it was fascinating reading from Chapter 2 onward, by the time I hit Chapter 5, I was suffering from information overload and put the book down for several weeks.

This respite was helpful, as I was able to finish the book and gain some practical knowledge in the process. I even went back and read the chapter I skipped and found it an excellent refresher that not only was relevant but necessary in a volume of this nature. I think the practical illustrations of managing DNA projects were the most helpful to me personally; however, I expect that every reader will take away something that is of particular value to his or her own genetic quest.

While the authors have refrained from overwhelming their audience with technical terminology and scientific mumbo-jumbo, the amount of information one must process in order to have a better understanding of the material can be overwhelming in itself. This is no fault of the authors – it is the nature of the beast of the subject matter. I would encourage folks to take it slow and consume the material in small bites rather than to wolf it down in one setting as I had attempted.

Suggestions to the Authors

The only thing I felt that was outdated was the information on autosomal and X-chromosomal testing as these had not yet become a reality in 2004. This book could be easily updated by removing the current Chapter 11 and replacing it with chapters regarding these two recent advances. This would be a welcome addition to an already fine book. In the wake of 23andMe’s and FTDNA’s autosomal and X chromosomal testing offerings, it would be a perfect time to update this work.

Not only would these additions be timely, they would be of help to those who jump into autosomal testing, but only have a grasp on Y-DNA and mtDNA testing. If there is any major problem I see on 23andMe and DNA-Forums, it is that some folks are confused about the scope of autosomal testing and that it encompasses all of their genetic lineages (to a point) and not just the strict paternal and strict maternal lines via Y-DNA and mtDNA. This seems to be a common point of confusion for newcomers.

Finally, I only have one criticism of the book and that is the attempt of the authors to coin a new term – “genetealogy” – a combination of genetics and genealogy. While this is really minor issue in the scheme of things, the term just fell flat with me and I personally feel that it was overused in the book.

If you perform a Google search of “genetealogy” it returns less than 4,700 returns. While I will agree that this is a large number of search returns, most of the references point to Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak’s Genetealogy.com website or to her specific work in the area of genetic genealogy.

A search on DNA-Forums.org returns no hits, which shows that the name was not largely adopted by the genetic genealogy community. By comparison, a Google search of “genetic genealogy” returns about 237,000 hits. Again this is just a personal pet peeve I have and is based solely on language usage and not on the material that is presented in the book. Again, this is a insignificant point and does not detract from this well written and informative book.


All in all, I recommend Trace your Roots with DNA to anyone who wants to learn more about Y-DNA and mtDNA testing and how these tests can help you understand your family better. It is well written and, notwithstanding the advances in testing in the last several years, is still current in most regards. I hope the authors will consider updating this volume, as it should be recommended reading for anyone who is considering using DNA testing to better understand his or her own family.


  1. Hey Jim,

    Nice review. I've been involved with DNA for a few years now and consider myself a well informed novice. Funny comment about "genetealogy" I've never seen anyone use it.. lol. I guess it's hard to know what will take off and what will not.

  2. Thanks Bill. My sentiments exactly. I appreciate your comments.