Britains DNA – Caveat Emptor

Recently, a client contacted me who had tested with both companies, Britains DNA and GeneBase, and couldn’t figure out what to make of his results or if the two even connected with each other.

When I saw what he sent me, I immediately understood why, and I felt very badly for him.

I often wonder how people make decisions regarding DNA testing and the companies they choose.  In some cases, I know.  For example, Ancestry has a lot of subscribers, so subscribers make up the majority of their customers.  But that’s not always the case.

I hadn’t actually been able to see results from Britains DNA before, so this was a great opportunity, but I am sorely disappointed.

While I was in this evaluation process, the following article titled  “Exaggerations and Errors in the Promotion of Genetic Ancestry Testing” was published which I found extremely concerning.

Let’s take a look at what you actually receive from Britains DNA.

For 170 pounds, which equates to about $266 US, in a 3 page boilerplate report, you learn the identity of 4 of your haplogroup SNPs.  They tell you that “Your Fatherline is Berber” and “Your YDNA markers are M35+M81+,” and that’s it for customization, other than your name and one line on page three that says “These are the markers we tested which define your group:  M96+  P29+  M35+ and M81+.”  The rest of the three pages is entirely a boilerplate story.  And what a “story” it is.

The first thing you see is a map, but not until the last paragraph of page 3 does it tell you that the map shows where “your group” is found today, but what is meant by “your group” is unclear.  I’m presuming here that the map is either showing M35 or M81.  For $266 dollars, the customer should not have to presume.

britains dna map

Part of the ensuing “story” is questionable.  For example, describing the after-effects of the eruption of Mount Toba in 70,000 BC, “Only in east-central Africa, in the shelter of the great rift valleys, did tiny remnant bands of people survive where perhaps as few at 5000 outlived the sunless summers.”

What is stated here as fact is assuredly one of the theories, but it’s far from an established scientific fact and is highly controversial.  There are no words here like “may have been” or “are believed by some” – just the recantation of a story using the tone one might use to tell a fanciful bedtime story to a believing child. Except these people are adults and paid a lot of money to receive a scientific explanation of their DNA results, not something that reads like a modern day fairy tale.

Another example is their introduction of marker M81.  “Men with your marker, with M81, made a dramatic entry into recorded history.  Led by one of the greatest generals the world has seen, Berber cavalry fought in the Carthaginian army as it struggled with Rome in the 3rd century BC for control of the Mediterranean.”

Really?  That was their introduction?

Arredi et al in 2004 in the paper, “A Predominantly Neolithic Origin for Y-Chromosomal DNA Variation in North Africa” linked M81 with the spread of Neolithic food producing technologies.  So if M81 existed in the Neolithic, which began about 10,000 years ago in the Middle East, it clearly wasn’t introduced in the 3rd century BC with the unnamed Berber general, or the Carthaginians.  Maybe the story of the Carthaginians was just a more interesting tale.  The problem is that it’s misleading and inaccurate.

Reading this “story” from the perspective of one experienced with genetic genealogy, I feel like this was written for an audience they felt was unable to comprehend the “complicated truth.”  Except, the truth isn’t all that complicated.  People can understand it just fine, thank you, and I find that approach very insulting.

Near the end of the story, in the “marker” section, they say that  “SNP is another word for marker” and that these markers are unique events in human history showing you where your ancestors were in the past and where your “group” is found today.  There is no further explanation.

Personally, I found this entire 3 pages arrogantly condescending.  Judging from that article, I’m not alone.  Moreover, this high priced, low value, fanciful product worries me because I’m concerned that genetic genealogy will all be painted and tarred with the same brush once the consuming public catches on and the word gets out.  You know, that bad apple thing.  I hope that Britains DNA will either improve their product or exit the marketplace before they damage an already nervous European population relative to DNA testing.  And what’s worse, this is Brits preying on other Brits when they will likely attempt to invoke a trust relationship with potential buyers.  “Buy from us, we’re Brits and we’re local.”  To put this in perspective, the cost of 4 SNP markers at Family Tree DNA, the only company who tests SNP markers boutique style, is $29 each, for a total of $116.

My client, not knowing quite what to make of all this, then tested at Genebase.  For another $119, he obtained STR markers for 27 locations.  He had no idea how to tie this together with the results from Britain’s DNA, or what to do with these markers.  He wanted to know if the two tests supported each other, or if they were different, and what they told him.  That’s when he found me.

I did best I could for him with what I had to work with by using Whit Athey’s haplogroup predictor, YSearch and the haplogroup project for E-M35.  Thank you, Whit and Family Tree DNA for these tools.

In the end, what I finally told him, among other things, is that he needs to spend another $119 so that he can test at Family Tree DNA.  I hated to do this, because with my fee added, this man has now paid over $400 US.  Testing at Family Tree DNA would get him 37 markers, a personal page, a haplogroup and provide him the ability to join an Italian project, a surname project and a haplogroup project.  He needs to be able to work with haplogroup project administrators to determine if he needs deep clade (or similar) SNP testing. He needs to be able to look at the haplogroup origins page, the ancestral origins page, and the matches map to see where his own people were both further back in time and more recently.  He needs matches, and to be able to contact his matches to see if he can make connections and discern trends.  He needs a community.

Never, until today, until I saw this man’s piecemeal results, fanciful boilerplate story and his desire to patch it all together, did I fully appreciate all that Family Tree DNA provides, in one place, integrated, through their products and webpages, and charitably, through the foundation they provide for their project administrators, Ysearch, Mitosearch and the support of other clients and volunteers who guide people through the discovery process.

A very, very big thank you to Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld, founders of Family Tree DNA, and to all of those unnamed volunteers and project administrators who work together and separately to make all of this possible.

For my client, though, and others like him, I’m not quite sure what to say or how to prevent this in the future.  I guess the words “buyer beware” also have to be applied to purchasing genetic genealogy products.  As with any other items where consumers are drawn to purchase something, if there is money and demand, there will be scam artists and less than ethical people looking to take advantage of a naïve consuming public.  For me, it’s personally painful when those people fall into the category of “scientists” because like doctors, that professional label alone engenders trust.  This product certainly trembles on the line of betrayal of that trust.  Some would say it crosses that line.  Perhaps it is a fine line.  The customer did discover his “fatherline” and receive a story, even if the story was more fluffy than scientific and the price exorbitant for what he received.

Caveat emptor!



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