Nautilus

Your DNA Is Nothing Special

Who’s your daddy? It’s a fair question. A meta-study published in 2006 by a University of Oklahoma anthropology professor estimated that 30 percent of men who have low paternity confidence about a child were justified in their suspicions. Even among men with high paternity confidence (that is, they’re married to the mother), about 2 percent were cuckolds.1 During the eons before reliable paternity tests became available in the 1960s, there was no way to verify these “non-paternal events”; even the mother could only guess. Today anyone can submit a few hundred dollars and a scraping of their cheek cells and, if the older guy who claims to be the father does the same, within weeks confirm or deny that claim. Predictably, that 2 percent margin of error has led to some uncomfortable situations (see Genetic Surprises).

DNA testing has become very popular among genealogists. The birth certificates, census records, and other documents they usually rely on can be wrong. DNA is never wrong. It can’t be altered, or forged, and you can’t misfile it. You can’t even always destroy it: DNA has been recovered from a frozen, 5,000-year-old corpse and used to identify his living descendants.2 Genetics do not uncover everyday family secrets such as the fact your great-great-grandfather owned slaves (unless he fathered children with some of them) or that a great uncle flunked out of West Point—it reveals the family secret, from whence you came, your begat. And your tree very likely has some invasive branches. As you look further up the tree, the chances of a non-paternal event rise exponentially. After 10 generations, you have 1,024 ancestors—I’m telling you, someone strayed. That’s why it’s prudent to trace families, not pedigrees.

You read these alarming stories once in a while about men who were first enthused about testing but then troubled when they discovered they aren’t who they thought they were, at least biologically, or that they have a half-brother they didn’t know about, or that an unsuspecting, elderly

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