Edward Ball. The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History through DNA. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007, 265 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-6658-1 ISBN-10: 0-7432-6658-7. $28.99 Cdn.
The Genetic Strand by Edward Ball could be summarized as “CSI” meets “Ancestors in the Attic.” Readers who are interested in forensic genealogy should not shy away from reading this book if they fear becoming hopelessly mired in science content. Be assured that Ball does a spectacular job condensing the complex world of DNA testing into understandable vocabulary for non-science folks (e.g. “[chromosomes] are DNA… they are the luggage that carries the genes.”)
Inspired by the fortuitous discovery of the hair samples, Ball decides to create a “genetic memoir,” one that would confirm or refute family chronicles that often contain hearsay. The premise of the book is simple: Could genetic tests tell us what we really are, in a verifiable, scientific sense?
Of particular interest is the case of his great grandmother, Kate Fuller, whose entire ethnicity and lineage is abruptly called into question as a result of one particular DNA analysis.
No genetic analysis would be complete without also discussing population movement such as the “out of Africa” theory, that anatomically modern humans had originated in Africa, then had migrated out and around the world some 100,000 years ago. It is through genetic mutations and the markers they leave behind for future generations that link modern DNA to human origins in Africa, Asia, Europe or North America.
The moral of the story is that science is not omniscient. Realizing that the tests are not flawless, even in the exacting world of DNA analysis, Ball takes the hair samples for multiple testing to a variety of genetic labs throughout the US, Canada and the UK. The author acknowledges the subjectivity of using old hair samples. Considering that “[age] is bad, water is bad and heat is bad” the fact that these hair samples “stewed” in a hot, humid environment (Charleston, South Carolina) for 200 years is one reason to take the DNA results with a grain of salt.
This book deftly marries science and genealogy. However, readers looking for scandalous discoveries about the genetic purity of the Ball family will be disappointed. The author generalizes the DNA testing experience to what it means for the future trends of genealogy, rather than focusing on how the results influence his own ancestors. As the author states, “the surprises come from what the scientists do to the evidence, not from their revelations about it.”
Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book. The author has an engaging and amusing style of writing, describing his initial discovery of the hair samples as “little extras Louis and Mary Leakey might have kept on the mantel.” The book reads as a narrative and is aimed at people who are keen to jump on the forensic bandwagon to shake out “real” relationships and ethnicities in the family tree. The topic is appearing increasingly in professional genealogy magazines (e.g. “From DNA to Genetic Genealogy,” APG Quarterly, Mar 2009) and, judging by the number of websites devoted to genetic testing and genealogy, is becoming more mainstream for the amateur family historian. It is not really a book readers need to keep in a personal library, but worthwhile to read if one is considering DNA testing of family members.