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Will Britain’s Genealogy Craze Catch On in the US?

March 05, 2010 12:24 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
A new TV series follows celebrities as they trace their family histories, and could prompt greater interest in genealogy and DNA technologies among Americans, including students.

Family Histories in Focus

Tonight, the first episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?" airs on NBC. The show, a spin-off of the British version, follows American celebrities as they uncover their ancestral pasts. The first episode features actress Sarah Jessica Parker and her family’s compelling involvement in the California Gold Rush and Salem witch trials.

According to a synopsis of the series, provided by Blend Television, the show “tells a distinctly American story as it celebrates the twists and turns of a great nation and the people who struggled for freedom and opportunity." Watch clips and a trailer for the show on the site. 

Genealogy in the Classroom

PBS’ Intimate Strangers has activities and lessons plans for students in grades 9-12 involving the Human Genome Project and the role of DNA in the Tree of Life

National Geographic’s Genealogical Atlases lesson plan for students in grades 3-5 “asks students to interview their parents or other relatives about what it was like where they grew up." Students utilize maps found online to make their own “genealogical atlases” showing their family ancestry.

Opinion & Analysis: Celebrity genealogy

"Who Do You Think You Are?" has already sparked controversy. Though some are glad to see a burgeoning interest in genealogy in the U.S., others lament the celebrity focus of the show.

Kimberly Powell, an American genealogist and author, has seen U.S. “interest in family history research” increase exponentially. But she writes for the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? magazine, “[I]t is still not even close to matching the nationwide pastime of genealogy in Britain.” Powell also suggests that the show would not get a “national audience” in the U.S. if it did not feature celebrities.

Writing for The New York Times, Neil Genzlinger wonders whether the show’s celebrity focus and exciting storylines will set unrealistic expectations for Americans exploring their own family histories. “Some of us may take the genealogical plunge expecting cool family stories like the ones the celebrities get, only to find that we’ve been ordinary and uninteresting since we were living in caves,” he writes.

Background: DNA technology and ancestry

New technological advances have led to ancestral discoveries. Researchers have been able to look more closely at the DNA of historic figures, such as Charles Darwin. Ordinary citizens interested in their ancestry have also utilized DNA tests.

Don Kincaid, a Texan seeking to establish his ancestry and reconnect with distant relatives, encouraged more than 140 people with variations of the surname Kincaid to take DNA tests and submit their results online, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The results led to surprising complications and uncomfortable family secrets, raising privacy concerns for those who participate in direct-to-consumer genetic testing.

More than 200 years after Charles Darwin’s birth, “DNA technology has helped determine who Darwin’s ancient ancestors were,” National Geographic reports. Chris Darwin, Darwin’s great-great-grandson, took part in a Genographic Project cheek swab test that analyzed his “Y” chromosome. The test revealed that Chris and Charles Darwin descended from one of the most common male lineages in Europe—the Haplogroup R1b.

Reference: Genealogy

Online resources for tracing family history have never been so accessible or comprehensive. The recommended sites in findingDulcinea’s guide enable discovery, organization and sharing of information about your family background.

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