Inside: We discuss the things you need to be wary of if you become interested in Genealogy – plus some reasons why genealogy is bunk (according to the skeptics).
Many enthusiasts think that genealogy is an important part of history, but it tends to not be as credible as people make it out to be.
Genealogists use records of family trees and other documents to trace lineages, in some cases going back to medieval times.
However, genealogists can only go so far, and many times the information can’t be verified.
If you’re interested in genealogy but believe it isn’t very factual, read on to see the many reasons why it’s bunk.
- What Is the Difference Between Genealogy and Ancestry?
- Here are the Reasons Why Genealogy is Bunk
- It’s Inconclusive
- People Aren’t Easily Grouped Together
- It’s Largely Eurocentric
- It’s Easy to Fake
- There are Many Myths Involved
- It’s a Commercial Enterprise
- It Can Cause Massive Privacy Breaches
- It Is Rarely Backed by Facts
- Interpretation Can Lead to Dangerous Conclusions
- It’s Imprecise
- It Relies on Flawed Data
What Is the Difference Between Genealogy and Ancestry?
Ancestry is a term that refers to our genetic background and our forebears.
It can have great social and cultural significance, as it links us to the past and shows us what informs our genetic make-up.
Ancestry is complex, but it can provide a lot of helpful information about what can affect us, what shapes our identity, and how we have evolved through our lineage.
Genealogy is the study of ancestry and, specifically, of family history.
It traces lineages and creates family trees.
The process of tracing ancestry can be extremely difficult and might depend on records that are long gone.
Genealogists use historical records like birth and death certificates, oral traditions, family stories and photographs, and genetic analysis.
Here are the Reasons Why Genealogy is Bunk
Genealogy has enjoyed increased popularity in recent years as the passion for tracing family trees has been commercialized.
It’s also part of popular culture now in a way it hasn’t been before, even though interest for it has existed in some form or another for centuries.
People seeking to understand their identity or seek elevated status in their ancestors’ lineage meant to elevate their sense of self-worth have been the perfect audience for these companies.
They advertise packages meant to provide insight into genealogy, but here are some of the reasons why the lack of science involved makes many of these findings bunk.
The lack of science involved in genealogy causes inconclusive results that can’t be used to prove ancestry.
In many cases, you can take one genealogy test and believe that the results are as certain as they can be with something like this.
However, if you go ahead and take more than one, you might start becoming very aware of this problem.
In many cases, those who take several tests will receive different results.
This doesn’t happen only if you take different tests from different companies; it can also happen if you repeat a test with the same one.
The results may be similar, but you will frequently notice discrepancies between them.
Genealogy uses DNA samples as some of its most conclusive data, but you should still be wary of it.
A DNA sample provided by the same person to the same company should get the same result no matter how many times it is repeated.
Still, inaccuracy remains the trend even when accuracy should be expected.
At most, the results genealogy will provide you will be able to describe some percentages that can indicate potential ancestry, but without being conclusive, there is no way of being sure which results are more correct than the others.
People Aren’t Easily Grouped Together
Throughout history, groups of people have moved all over the world, mixing with other groups.
Genealogy attempts to create hard limits for these groups to make them easier to trace, but this isn’t something that can truly be achieved, especially the further back in the past the tracing goes.
This can cause chaos in the data because the mixing of groups of people throughout history cannot be easily contained into the neat structures genealogy would like to impose on them.
This impossibility to create boundaries has genealogists relying heavily on the data provided by the more recent generations in a family tree.
Doing this will end up providing little insight into the reality of the movement involved in your family tree.
It will give you a supposition that can erase what actually happened, even with the more recent generations.
These can also escape the grasp of imposed boundaries that can’t stretch enough to accommodate the great expanse of history.
Depending on the service you use, you will face different groupings of ethnicities and regions.
These will frequently be lumped together and won’t tend to be coherently labeled across results.
Examples of these groupings are ‘North European,’ which includes the British Isles and Ireland, and ‘South European’ or ‘Iberian’ which includes Portugal and Spain.
You may also see the more popular areas in Europe referred to per country, which doesn’t help narrow down the actual groups of your ancestry.
It’s Largely Eurocentric
As we’ve seen in the previous section, this lumping together of groups indicates something else that the main genealogy services tend to do: focus their data on Eurocentrism.
There can be a significant lack of diversity in the data used to trace ancestry.
This is due in large part to research focusing on European and North American populations and being carried out by European and North American researchers.
There is an important absence of datasets from African and Asian populations, which can limit the field dramatically.
This can improve in the coming years if genealogy advances past its current stage, but at the moment, it will not be able to cover large parts of the population.
Even in Europe and North America, minorities won’t be accurately represented by the data because of its focus on the Old World and its influence on family trees.
Current genealogy services, especially those providing online DNA testing packages, are mainly able to provide their users with information about their Middle Eastern or African roots if their ancestors were, for example, part of the Moors that settled in Spain for centuries.
Populations that did not cross through Europe and leave their mark on descendants that may have later found themselves in the Americas are harder to pinpoint, which leaves a wide gap to be filled.
It’s Easy to Fake
Genealogy research can be easily forged, either for profit or for the sake of it.
Those looking for research into their family trees can find themselves quickly swindled into believing the data provided to them in return, and they may even find themselves paying exorbitant prices on top of that.
Some people may even fake their own results to gain some sort of profit from claiming notable ancestors, whether to distinguish themselves or to get attention.
It is relatively easy to procure documents that seem like they’re real to alter the results of genealogy tracing.
This hasn’t just been the case in contemporary times.
The main problem behind the success of so many historical genealogy forgeries is the reliance on printed documents being taken as factual.
While today’s genealogists should know better than to trust just any source, this hasn’t always been the case.
Many have taken advantage of this oversight.
Throughout history’s fascination with genealogy, there have been many instances of forgery, some of which even became part of the official narrative of some families.
Here are some of the more significant ones:
The Horn Papers
This history compiled by the Horn family was allegedly meant to cover the time between 1765 and 1795 and the locations of northern West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, western Maryland, and southeastern Ohio.
These accounts by Jacob Horn were transcribed in the twentieth century by his descendant and were initially thought to be accurate.
They were later found to have been a hoax.
Charles Henry Browning
This genealogist was born in 1846 and became a known family tree tracer who linked notable American figures to royal lineages.
He turned out to be an avid Aryan Order member who wished to use fake ancestry to claim social purity and superiority.
He collaborated with fellow Aryan and genealogy forger Frederick Gilman Forsyth.
Born in 1863, Anjou is perhaps one of the most well-known and prolific genealogy forgers.
The faked family trees were thought to be factual for decades, and some continue to prevail in certain libraries.
Anjou created over 300 genealogies and established pedigrees for some of the most notable North American families.
Despite his initial fame, all his work has since fallen into dispute after being discovered to have been intentionally fraudulent.
The pattern in his pedigrees became noticeable once all his work was studied. It included:
- An implausible number of connections between newly arrived immigrants to areas in New England
- References to well-established documents known for their validity, immediately followed by documents presented without sources used to back up Anjou’s statements
- Wildly inaccurate statements about the geographical movements of people that couldn’t be supported by facts
There are Many Myths Involved
Genealogy is plastered in myths about how it works and how it has defined individuals.
You’ll find some of the most notable ones below:
The Ellis Island Influence
You’ve probably heard this one before: the surnames of immigrants arriving in North America were replaced or altered while going through immigration control on Ellis Island.
This has been proven to not be the case.
Ellis Island immigration officers were tasked only with crossing names off passenger lists that were created at the point of departure.
While it’s true that many immigrants chose to change their name to a more anglicized form for a variety of reasons, this change was not imposed on them on arrival, and it cannot be used to make leaps of faith regarding ancestry in family trees.
If It’s In Print, It’s True
Printed research is not made factual through the act of printing.
Even in printed work, numerous errors and inaccuracies can persist, especially if not adequately checked.
You should always double-check information, even if it’s been printed, even if it’s in an established journal.
Mistakes and wrong interpretations happen all the time.
If there is genealogical information in a book you’re reading, for example, you should keep in mind a few things if you want to make sure the content is factual:
- The authorship
- The references
- The publishing year and location
You may have to do some detective work to make sure, but it’s the only way to not be fooled by the promise of printed genealogy work.
Everything Can Be Found Online
The world is indeed becoming increasingly digitized, but this doesn’t guarantee that all the records on your family tree can be found on the internet.
It can be a way to start piecing together some of it, especially with more recent generations, but it won’t be where you’ll find all the information you’ll need.
You may need to have access to court records, pension files, birth and death certificates, land entry files, church registers, and business records.
These can usually only be found as indexes online and will require the expertise of librarians and researchers.
There have been many instances of genealogy using Native American heritage as a way to claim some sort of royal title for their ancestors when most tribes did not have kings, queens, or princesses.
This prevailing myth of being related to ‘Cherokee princesses’ and the like seems linked to the Eurocentric view on royalty and the romanticization of certain aspects of Native American culture.
Same Name Confirmation
If you find relatives with the same last name while browsing online genealogy services, this isn’t a confirmation of an actual link.
Depending on the rarity of your surname, you will most likely find people sharing it that aren’t related to you in any way.
Don’t leap to conclusions when you start investigating.
Before you get excited about potentially finding a new relative, you should check every record and think about it logically.
You will be able to get slightly more accurate results if you put in the exact names, ages, and locations of as many family members as you can, but always be wary of the information you receive.
This is one of the most common and long-standing genealogy myths.
It’s a frequently used excuse for an inability to trace back lineage: the courts or the administrations of the churches have burned down, taking all relevant documents with them.
This has certainly happened and has claimed a lot of information from people, but it doesn’t occur nearly as much as it might seem.
In most fire damage cases, documents have been reconstructed, and the information in them has been recorded.
Even in the case of such a location burning down, the documents could still have been saved before or after the incident without everyone knowing.
Lost records can also be caused by changes in state boundaries through the years.
If a courthouse or administration building housing documents has burnt down and then changed jurisdictions, your records might be somewhere else instead of lost for good.
If you’re told that they have been lost in a fire, don’t give up hope and dig deeper. It is not always the end of the road.
The Myth Of The Three Brothers
This is a popular story in folklore that is considered an origin for some of the most prevalent surnames in the United States.
The story states that three brothers arrived here as immigrants only to split up.
They each traveled to an area of the United States: north, west, and south.
This story is used to explain the number of people with the same surname in these areas, but this has never been verified.
It is more likely that the surnames spread through different people with the same one, and through siblings frequently traveling together and settling in the same area.
It’s a Commercial Enterprise
The popularity of genealogy has taken off, especially due to the marketing of online-based companies purporting to deliver facts about your ancestry through DNA testing.
Genealogy has become trendy, and DNA test kits are frequently delivered to eager customers worldwide.
As is the case with most trends, genealogy has become influenced by profit rather than by facts.
The number of people using it is great for the companies, but success doesn’t ensure accuracy or the genuine discovery of ancestry.
Genealogy has gone beyond the study of ancestry to become a part of popular culture.
People who’ve undergone DNA testing and have been placed in one or more groupings have gone to social media to share their findings, which only stoked the flames further.
The main problem with this is that the data is now less relevant than gaining popularity, standing out from the crowd, and finding shared common ground with potential relatives.
You should always bear in mind that this is primarily a money-making industry.
It is currently lucrative and makes a steady profit.
Still, results need to be fact-checked, and the information remains vague, so you should be ready to discover more on your own and not place your trust in companies that don’t necessarily have yours in mind when they create technology.
The marketing strategies behind the success of companies providing this service also involve making sure that the product you are consuming feels as tailor-made for you as possible.
They are designed to make it seem like they can offer you a deeper understanding of your identity, and they can be made immensely appealing to the user by using the information provided during the testing and the preliminary stages of researching family trees.
It Can Cause Massive Privacy Breaches
The main ethical problem involved in genealogy is the way it can breach privacy.
While the most popular services do have privacy policies, as required by most laws, they tend to just state that they would not be held responsible for what happens with the information you give them, especially if the company gets sold.
Most of the companies providing genealogy services will take all the information you provide them with (names, ages, locations, professions, samples, etc.) from as many relatives as you choose to share with them, and then they frequently sell that information before you even get to receive your genealogy results.
The privacy policies we mentioned can also put you at risk because the companies can include notes stating that they can be changed at any given time without requiring prior notification.
You should always check out every aspect and detail involved in a service like this, especially as it will leave your entire health history in the public eye.
These companies frequently preserve your information without destroying it.
This allows your personal information to be kept where others can reach it.
Many genealogy service providers are also working in collaboration with pharmaceutical companies, which are always interested in seeing how their products affect those using them.
It Is Rarely Backed by Facts
As we’ve already seen, facts aren’t the most important things when it comes to genealogy services, especially the kit ones provided by the companies interested in observing it.
The DNA tests, the pinnacle of genealogical testing, are skewed from the get-go.
These tests tend to only tell you how much you’ve inherited from your family.
They can’t go further into pinpointing the locations of relatives until they receive more information about where they lived.
Still, the tests usually only let you know how much of the DNA present in your saliva has been inherited from your relatives.
It does not tell you much about them, like where they lived or how they lived.
Being factual with something that is as inconsistent as genealogy is an arduous task.
The true accuracy of the information that genealogists get to work with cannot be established, which makes it easy to manipulate.
Interpretation Can Lead to Dangerous Conclusions
Genealogy can be helpful, but it can also be a dangerous tool.
When used to solve cold cases, for example, it can break the case open and provide new insights and leads.
At the same time, its inconsistency and lack of a factual background can lead to disastrous consequences, like causing the wrong person to be falsely accused.
This occurred with the case of Michael Usry, who was falsely accused of murder due to a mix-up with DNA samples.
It took another DNA sample from the man himself to clear him, and that took a while to have the results ready.
During this time, Usry had to be under suspicion of murder.
Genealogy’s primary way to go about establishing ancestry and DNA profiles is to interpret the material.
This can lead to wild leaps that have nothing to do with what happened, but if it fits the narrative and if the material can be used as support for it, the genealogist will usually be happy to provide such a report.
Genealogy is easily unmasked as bunk because it is imprecise and murky from the start.
The materials used for research can be wrong, especially the further back in time you go.
Names can be misspelled, dates can be entered wrong, and documents can be torn or damaged. People can disappear and reappear, families can change, and locations can be incorrectly recorded.
There is little information that is precise in this research, and that is usually used to justify the rest of it.
Accurate and precise record-keeping has not always been possible for all the population throughout history.
This may have caused substantial family upheavals, especially if the records are flawed.
It Relies on Flawed Data
Genealogy is bunk because most of the data it uses is flawed.
Either because it is incomplete, incorrect, or absent, the data will be one of the leading causes of the inaccuracy involved in the results.
Not only are the datasets limited and potentially flawed, but there can also easily be mistakes in other records.
It can be a huge chore to navigate through piles of flawed data to find just a tiny amount that can be used, but it will make a difference in the findings.
If you’re wary of genealogy anyway, this will show you that there’s a reason to be like that.
Flawed data provides flawed information, and it can’t be easily or fully proven to be correct or from the right time.
Genealogy is bunk for numerous reasons, but we’ve looked at 11 of the most important ones in this article.
Lack of factual research, lack of records, and lack of trust have gotten in the way and influenced the results in a way that renders them almost unusable.
You are right to be wary of it, especially when you see how much information can be misconstrued.
Many myths influence the context behind the research and that have shaped the cultural understanding of genealogy.
These myths have been debunked too, but society continues to cling to them.
The imprecision of genealogy, its lack of accuracy, and the absence of facts are all elements that contribute to the atmosphere.
Combined with the way it has been claimed by marketing strategies and ancestry propaganda, it is best to be wary of expensive services that promise all the answers.
Save your money and do your own research if you have the time, always sticking to reliable sources.