Far be it from me to minimize the intelligence and contributions of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. My own feelings about him are mixed, as I think he acted irresponsibly and reprehensibly in the Cambridge Incident. Not his initial reaction—I wouldn't want to place any bets on my own rational behavior after returning from an exhausting overseas trip and finding myself locked out of my house, then being suspected by the police of housebreaking. But for escalating the affair even after the facts were known. At least I think that I, upon calmer reflection (and perhaps some much-needed sleep), would have been grateful to have had a neighbor notice that someone was jimmying my door, and police willing to be certain the housebreaker was who he said he was.
That aside, however, I can't deny his accomplishments, nor fail to appreciate his contributions to the genealogical field, especially in making it more popular and accessible to many who otherwise would never have given it a second thought. For a while we watched his PBS series, Finding Your Roots, though just as with Who Do You Think You Are? and Genealogy Road Show, it got tiresome after a while: too much hype, too many celebrities, not enough content. His work is serious, and his passion genuine.
Recently Gates was interviewed in the American Ancestors magazine published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society. His passion shows in his answer to the question, Where do you see genealogy in five or ten years? What do you think is going to happen?
I'm working with a team of geneticists and historians to create a curriculum for middle school and high school kids, to revolutionize how we teach American history and how we teach science using ancestry tracing. Every child in school would do a family tree. We think that's the best way—to have their DNA analyzed and learn how that process works in science class. In American history class, we think that's the best way to personalize American history and the nature of scholarly research. For a lot of kids, going to the archives, looking at the census is boring. But if we say, "You're going to learn about yourself, where you come from," what child wouldn't be interested in that?
Really? Really? I'm 100% with him on the idea that genealogy makes history personal and for me far more interesting. I can feel and appreciate his enthusiasm. But can you imagine parental reaction to this particular permission slip? This is several orders of magnitude greater than the privacy violations already imposed on families by the schools. Genetic genealogy is a very young science with innumerable risks and ethical pitfalls. Even those of us who value the genetic information available aren't necessarily thrilled with the idea of our genetic information being "out there."
Medical fears Who else can learn that I have a genetic predisposition to cancer, or bipolar disorder? If I get tested, will I be morally obligated to reveal the results to my family, my doctors, or on an insurance or employment application? Do I even want to know myself? If the school learns such a thing about my child, will that affect their treatment of him? Could they initiate a child abuse claim if we refuse to take whatever steps they recommend based on this knowledge?
Sociological and psychological fears A child discovering that his father isn't the man he has called Daddy all his life. A youthful indiscretion revealed by the discovery of an unexpected half-sibling. Decades-old adulteries brought to light. We like to hear of the DNA-testing success stories, of Holocaust survivors reunited with family members they thought long dead. But there's a darker side to the revelations: as one man wrote, With genetic testing, I gave my parents the gift of divorce. Even if we're certain there are no skeletons in our own closets, or don't care if they're brought to light, can we be so sure about other family members? Can we speak for their wishes? What's revealed about our DNA affects other lives; no man is a genealogical island.
Security fears I have too much respect for hackers and too many misgivings about the NSA to believe any reassurance that the data is secure. And indeed, much of the information desired by those who have their DNA analyzed is only useful if it is shared.
To be sure, there's a lot of very interesting data that can potentially be mined from DNA testing, and I'm not saying I'll never consent. It's tempting, to be sure. But it's not a decision to be entered into lightly, and certainly not one to be imposed on a family by a middle school history teacher. Even one as enthusiastic and as persuasive as Henry Louis Gates, Jr.