Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Scottish Television DNA series

As an ex-television producer, sometimes I cringe when I hear about a new TV series on the cards, and an advert on the telly a few moments ago has not filled me with confidence. Scottish Television is planning a new series that plans to use DNA testing to help broken families. Here's the blurb from STV's website:

STV SHOW TO SOLVE DNA MYSTERIES... STV are making a brand new television series that will use DNA testing to help people whose families and relationships have been torn apart by problems in the past. Perhaps you lost contact with brothers and sisters after a family break-up or moving away? Maybe you think you’ve found a long lost relative from overseas but are unsure they are who you think they are? Or maybe you just want to find out the truth about your own past? Well, if you think a free DNA test could help you, then call STV on 0871 827 5020 or e-mail us at

I spent twelve years trying to not produce gimmick television, but eventually conceded defeat in the face of an ever dumbing down broadcast industry in 2006, when I asked for voluntary redundancy from the BBC. I know how the ideas meetings at both the BBC and STV work, having sat in many at both buildings for years - DNA in genealogy is cool, fab and trendy, let's exploit it, etc etc.

DNA in genealogy is cool, fab and trendy - when used right, along with various other forms of documentary evidence. I am praying that this new series does not turn out anything like as bad as the recent BBC series "Gene Detectives", which seemed to exploit adopted children trying to trace their biological parents in a daytime gameshow format, using the magic of DNA - "which one of these last three lucky ladies is your mum? Have you got her nose or eyes?". I kid you not. I actually wrote a complaint to the BBC over it, and received the following reply from a press officer in the corporation in March of last year (I've abridged it):

Genealogy is one of Britain's fastest growing pastimes and the subject of family history is consequently becoming increasingly popular in the media. Gene Detectives, a new two-week day time show by Freeform Productions for BBC One, follows this growing fascination and hunger that now exists for finding out more about who we are and where we came from. The premise of the programme is to help people who are searching for long lost relatives and people who have already dedicated a considerable amount of their lives to finding their family members.

With the involvement of [an] expert genealogist... the programme was able to conduct its search for long lost relatives using both conventional and more experimental genetic methods. General registration, electoral registers, phone directories and existing clues such as dates and places of birth were used to begin the search. We then undertook a series of further tests to help narrow the search down to the right relative. The point of this was to fully illustrate - in an entertaining and informative way - techniques that test physical similarities, such as lung capacity, height, blood pressure, eye-sight, voice recognition, facial mapping and a "Deep Ancestry" DNA test...

...Finally, since the programme transmitted we have had nearly 3,000 requests from people wanting us to help them find their relatives. The Gene Detectives has obviously struck a chord with the Great British Public. You may rest assured that your comments have been registered.

My comments obviously were registered, along with many other people's from the Great British Public, as the series has not been seen since, undoubtedly because of the huge uproar the series caused in genealogical circles.

I sincerely hope that the new STV series does not in any way try to mimic the pseudo science that I have highlighted in the above BBC statement.



Anonymous said...

hello - i married a girl from mull whos grandmother said she was decended from the spanish armada i wondered would it be possible through d n a to trace spanish acestory?

Chris Paton said...

A DNA test can reveal an ethnic ancestral grouping (a haplogroup) or can flag up a likely connection between two people who have taken tests and have been found to have very similar genetric profiles.
In this case, it can show a probability of how likely it is that both are connected to a particular ancestor a few generations back, either on the surname line (father's father's father etc), or the mother's line (mother's mother's mother etc). Only the direct maternal and paternal lines can currently be tested (Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA tests). No matter which test is done, the results are only useful if documentatry evidence can then back up the research, to trace the actual connection.

In your example, it is extremely unlikely that you will confirm the Spanish armada story - the results of DNA tests only work in conjunction with the documented records, and I doubt the documented records for Mull will be that strong that far back. The test might flag up a connection to someone in the world, but it takes the documents to actually trace the connection.

A test might show that your wife's ancestor is descended from the same ethnic grouping (haplogroup), but that won't confirm the armada story, just that the genetic profile shares certain traits with people from that group.

For more information on DNA, I havwe two articles freely available online - one at Talking Scot's library section - see (A Beginners Guide to Genetic Genealogy), and another at Scotland's Greatest Story's webiste regarding's DNA service - see (DNA & Genealogy).