Every now and then, I’m aghast when I look at a product and wonder how the devil it ever escaped the lab. Is there no quality control? And who thought it was a good idea, anyway, and why?
23andMe’s new Ancestry Timeline, released last week, is one of those.
Not only is it incorrect, but it deceives people into believing something that isn’t true.
Let’s take a look.
My Ancestry Timeline at 23andMe is shown above. I notice that my Middle Eastern/North African is missing from the timeline. It’s less than 1%, but then so is my Native American which is included.
You can see in the text underneath the timeline that 23andMe says this timeline reflects how long ago my MOST RECENT ancestor in that geographic location was born.
Let’s compare this with reality. You may recall that I recently wrote the article, Concepts – Calculating Ethnicity Percentages. In that article, I utilized my known and proven genealogy for my 64 great-great-great-great-grandparents to calculate what my ethnicity results should look like. I’m referring to the same chart of my 64 ancestors for this exercise as well, since I’ve already done a great deal of the work. Let’s see how reality stacks up to the 23andMe timeline.
On the chart below, I’ve shown the geographic category, the dates from the 23andMe timeline reflecting my most recent ancestor’s birth, my most recent ancestor from that location, and the accuracy of the 23andMe estimate.
|Category||23andMe Dates||My Most Recent Ancestor Birth||23andMe Accuracy|
|British and Irish||1900-1930||1759 – Henry Bolton||Utter hogwash|
|French and German||1840-1900||1854 – Hiram Ferverda||Close|
|Scandinavian||1750-1840||No ancestor||More hogwash|
|Eastern European||1720-1810||No ancestor||Hogwash|
|Native American||1690-1790||Uncertain, mother’s side – early 1600s, father’s side – unknown||Not verifiable, reasonable|
The part of this equation that I find extremely upsetting is the sheer magnitude of how misleading the 23andMe timeline is. It’s not just wrong, it’s horribly deceptive – massively inaccurate by any measure possible.
Here’s what the 23andMe white paper says about this new tool:
“Admixture date estimator is a 23andMe feature that enables customers to find out, for each of the ancestries they carry, when they may have had an ancestor in their genealogy who was likely to be a non-admixed representative of that population.”
I’m a seasoned genealogist, so I know unquestionably that my 23andMe Timeline is not only wrong, it’s entirely hogwash in 4 of 6 categories. A 5th category is close, and the 6th is reasonable but not verifiable.
The disparity of the British/Irish dates between 1759 when Henry Bolton was born in London and 1900-1930 is evident without discussion. I do have a lot of British Isles ancestry, but it’s a result of many ancestors, not one and no one born there even remotely recently, let alone within the past generation. For me, someone born between 1900-1930 would be a parent.
Looking back at the Calculating Ethnicity Percentages article, you’ll note that I don’t have any Scandinavian ancestors in any known generation. The 8% that 23andMe estimates, if accurate, equates to between a great-grandparent at 12.5% and a great-great-grandparent at 6.25%. If the Scandinavian was one person, they would have been born in that timeframe (1750-1840) – but there was no one person. The Scandinavian has to be very ancestral, meaning ancient Vikings or Normans or found in the Dutch population which is often found to be “Scandinavian.” Regardless, there are no Scandinavian ancestors in my pedigree which reaches back well before 1750-1840. Neither are there any Eastern European or Italian ancestors. None. Nada. Zip.
Perplexingly, it’s that unverifiable category, Native American, that so many people are desperately researching and scavenge for any possible clue. There is no way to determine whether that category is right or wrong, so they will assume that it is accurate. However, judging from the track record of the other categories – it’s more likely to be incorrect than correct. Resorting to history alone, we know that the first European settlers arrived in North America in the early 1600s and my Native heritage is small, based on both my genealogy and my DNA, so a range of 1690-1790 would be a “good guess” with no genetic information at all. My proven Native ancestors were born in the early/mid 1600s, but I have not successfully identified all of my Native ancestors, in particular the one(s) from my father’s side and when they were fully Native.
For a beginner or someone with unknown parentage, this timeline is horribly, horribly midleading and will cause novices to make massively incorrect assumptions. A British or Irish ancestor born between 1900-1930? Seriously? This timeline combined with the 39.8% British/Irish suggests a parent. Think about what an adoptee would take away from this timeline – and how their research could be derailed as a result. Without parents available to DNA test, this erroneous information could make someone question their parentage.
Here’s an example of just how misleading this information can be.
In my case, I know beyond a doubt that my mother was primarily descended from German and Dutch recent immigrants with some French and Native American (Acadian) thrown in for good measure. So, based on this timeline stating that a British/Irish ancestor was born in the British Isles between 1900 and 1930, combined with my ethnicity results of 39.8% British and Irish, OH MY GOD, my father is not who I thought, but is some British/Irish man. MOTHER………………
All I can say is thank goodness I’ve done the DNA testing that I have and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my father is my biological father and not some British man, despite what this timeline suggests. If I had no other evidence – I certainly would believe that my father was a British man, and I’d be GRATEFUL for this (highly erroneous) information.
On the flip side, many people will utilize this tool to “confirm” suspicions about genealogy. I’ve already seen this happening on various lists. With 4 of 6 categories being entirely, provably, incorrect, not to mention that the first category reflecting my largest percentage of ethnicity is so dramatically wrong, one can have absolutely no confidence in any of the other categories. I can’t and neither can anyone else.
I’m not alone either. This, from another long-time genealogist: “I am dumbstruck. It couldn’t be further from the truth for me. I am very colonial on both sides. Most recent immigrant ancestor was 1797.” And from another: “No. Just no. Not accurate.”
So let me say this again.
You. Can. Have. No. Confidence.
If you already know your genealogy, then you don’t need this tool. If you don’t know your genealogy, then you’re going to be misled by this tool.
It’s very clear that anyone with many ancestors that came from a particular population, but that haven’t been born in that location in many generations will have an incorrect timeline. This would include just about everyone with colonial American roots. The amount of a particular ethnicity does NOT equate to aggregating that ethnicity into a single ancestor and equating the amount of ethnicity to a recent birth in that location. This logic is predicated on a whole lot of assumptions stacked on top of each other, like a house of cards. And we all know about assume.
23andMe, you should be ashamed of yourself for perpetrating genetic hogwash on your unsuspecting, believing and often vulnerable customers. Climb down out of your ivory tower, buy a vowel and get a clue. Statistics in an academic environment and reality sometimes just don’t mesh – and you, 23andMe, have the wherewithal and the customer base to discern the difference. You are supposed to be a science company. You have no excuse.
I understand the desire to provide new tools to customers, but inaccurate simplicity is never a priority over realism.
I hope 23andMe will have the decency to remove this new deceptive and misleading “feature” that should never have made it past “proof of concept” in the first place.
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