DNA, Genealogy And The Search For Who We Are

I might suggest that an article by Alva Noë in the NPR web site should be required reading for all genealogists. He writes:

  • You share no DNA with the vast majority of your ancestors.
  • You have more ancestors — hundreds a few generations back, thousands in just a millennium — than you have sections of DNA.
  • You have 64 great-great-great-great-grandparents — but if you are a man, you share your Y-chromosome with only one of them.
  • The amount of DNA you pass on to your descendants roughly halves with each generation. It is a matter of chance which of your descendants actually carry any of your DNA.
  • It can be demonstrated that 5,000 years ago everybody alive was either the common ancestor of everyone alive today, or the common ancestor of no one. At this point in history we all share exactly the same set of ancestors.

In other words, everyone alive today is related to everyone else alive today. We are all distant cousins of each other.

You can read Alva Noë’s article at http://goo.gl/kh6bUb. The article also has a link to a talk given by Mark G. Thomas at the Who Do You Think You Are Live conference last year in Birmingham, England that I attended and I found the talk to be fascinating.

NOTE: Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015).


I wanted to listen to Mark Thomas, but the audio is very bad. Don’t suppose it is written out somewhere ?


Thank you so much for sharing this. I am frequently asked for help by people claiming to be related to Laura Ingalls Wilder, since interpreting her life and work is one of my chosen specialties as an historian.

I cannot tell you how often people insist on claiming the relationship when, to the best we can estimate, it is one falling along the lines of “7th cousins, 5x removed” or the like. These people often go on to make the assertion to anyone who will listen that they somehow “know” a good deal about what “must” be true of LIW’s immediate family–by basing an assumption on their own immediate family. Sometimes they also associate my name with helping them “discover” this “truth” about their favorite historical figure.

Every time I get an inquiry such as this, I cringe. I know what is likely to happen next; perhaps I should have a policy of non-assistance on these requests?


I totally agree that there was realistically only a small number of people. Once groups left who did they mate with? Relatives. Course as time goes we start to branch out find other people(who most likely are related in some way).
People don’t like to think that their ancestors slept with and had children with close family.
I wonder how the Professor is welcomed by people outside his realm. Any thoughts?


Mark Thomas can also be heard on this (always excellent) Infinite Monkey Cage podcast, What is Race? http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06ybg84


I question this DNA any ways. Did all the people listed on your list of ancestors (
DNA) have had the test?!


It’s quite apparent that Alva Noë is not familiar with the way genetic genealogy is used in practice — one of many tools, and one which is endorsed by such respected experts as Elizabeth Shown Mills


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