Genealogy and Uncertainty

Family trees in a world of DNA and family secrets.

Daniel Voshart
3 min readNov 8, 2021

Genealogy is complicated. Done poorly, it can hypnotize people into false sense of certainty. Every minute someone spits into an ancestry test resulting in a digital slap in the face. Quietly, millions of people have been forced to reconcile what they previously knew with what they now know regarding family.

These conflicting realities force us to think of genealogy outside the nuclear family tree charts. These realities are difficult to conceptualize.

While collaborating with a Forensic Genealogist on a side project, I came to realize we all *really* have two or more family trees. I will call these three family trees dry, wet and social.

  1. Dry family trees are what paperwork says and is based on the nuclear family. For many, this is enough and most ancestry websites are based on dry family trees.
  2. Wet family trees are DNA focused and require navigating Non-paternity events (NPE). Common NPEs include (but not limited to): illegitimacy outside marriage; infidelity within marriage; rape and adoption.
  3. Social family trees vary depending on culture and explain someone’s lived reality. Depths of claims vary. If depth of claims are shallow the chances of dry and wet family trees aligning are higher than if claims go deeper. Some might denounce their dry or wet family trees. It is common for people to add social family through marriage, re-marriage, God-parents, ceremonial adoption, clan or totem systems, and informal adoption. Social claims need to be evaluated and re-evaluated with the social climate.

The error rates between dry and wet are much higher than people imagine. Contemporary NPE statistics range between 2–12%. Using an International median rate of 3.8%, which compounds each generation, suggests there is one in four chance of finding an error in your great-grandparent genealogy.

Genealogical uncertainty. Link to Google Sheets.

Tread lightly.

If you’re thinking of making a racial/ancestry-based claim: consult a genetic genealogist or stick with the most accurate answer which is “I don’t know”. Sometimes family stories are more biologically accurate, sometimes less.

Beware: judging yourself or others because of some pedigree chart is, quite literally what the Eugenics movement was all about. Don’t let biology dictate lives. This uncertainty should reinforce freedom of association.

The knowledge that NPEs led to every person in existence has slowly reshaped my worldview. When people reference their ancestors my jaw tenses up a little bit. Unless you exhumed all your ancestors or cross checked autosomal DNA with all descendants (the latter being something people are attempting to do): all you know is who you *think* your ancestors are.

DANIEL VOSHART is a designer who writes about things that interest him. Follow him on Twitter.