|Northern Isles of Scotland Stout Family History Project
Motivation and ethics
For privacy reasons, some potential participants may be cautious about any
analysis of their DNA, perhaps especially when the data is held overseas in
There may also be legitimate concerns about the unearthing of suspected or
unsuspected family secrets.
It may seem a pointless exercise anyway. What follows is an attempt to
address these concerns.
What is the motivation for doing DNA-based family history research? What indeed is the motivation for doing
family history research at all?
To varying extents most of us, possibly in a search for personal identity, share some curiosity about our
ancestors. There is also an excitement in the intellectual challenge of doing the research and uncovering new
information, even if the protagonists in the unfolding story are ordinary people who led, in the conventional sense,
ordinary lives. When trawling through the records, the historical and social context of each generation is never far
away; the Victorian family sizes, infant mortality, emigration in response to population pressure, the military
pensioners, the harsh workings of the Poor Law, twentieth century social mobility, the prevalence of tuberculosis
in the nineteenth – all are reflected in our own family histories. It is likely, therefore, that anyone with a strong
sense of history will take an interest in their own historical background. For many Orcadians, there are two
particular circumstances which reinforce this. The first is a strong sense of history in a community which has its
own story of nationhood and a physical environment rich with artifacts from the past. The second is the fact that
Orkney has only relatively recently emerged from a preliterate, subsistence economy where family relationships
were extremely important socially and economically and counting kin was the stuff of everyday conversation.
If we consider a pedigree of over 400 years in depth, say 15 generations, the theoretical number of ancestors
belonging to the earliest generation is 32,768.
To put that in perspective, the population of Orkney peaked at around that level in the nineteenth century. Of
course, in a pedigree of that depth many individuals will occupy several ancestral positions, reflecting the extent to
which there have been cousin marriages. However, it does suggest how, in a small community, even with the
contribution of some incomers, the genetic makeup of an individual is dependent on the entire genetic pool. In that
sense the islanders are descendants of the whole historical community and not of a single line of males.
For that reason, it can be argued that pedigrees are more meaningful and interesting than family trees which show
only descendants in a male line. (The same could be said of tracing a family tree exclusively in the female line,
although it is seldom done.)
y-DNA research is relevant to tracing a family tree in the male line, albeit focusing on biological paternity rather
than social fatherhood. In fact there is an equivalent technology allowing relationships to be traced in the female
line using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) but it is less useful to genealogists, partly because there is simply less
interest in family trees in the female line, partly because maternity is seldom in doubt and partly because the rate
of mutation of the mitochondrial DNA is slower and less revealing. From the argument about meaningfulness of
family trees above, together with the ethical considerations already discussed, the question arises “Why do it?”
In addition to extending the reach of traditional methods of family history research, the DNA-based approach
looks at a new dimension of our personal identity. Even if the scope is limited to a single line of ancestors, it is
truly amazing that we can make definitive statements about our personal origins which refer to the distant past in
the neolithic and in some cases paleolithic. A pedigree of 10,000 years depth, say 400 generations has theoretically
an astronomical number of ancestors (2**400) at the earliest generation. Of course there are multiple appearances
of many individual ancestors in many positions in the pedigree. Nevertheless, the genetic contribution of each
individual ancestor to a descendant after 400 generations varies from zero to very little. The persistence of the y-
DNA and mtDNA is therefore something of a miracle.
For the enthusiast, family history research with or without DNA, is a puzzle-solving exercise of the same kind as
sudokus, jigsaws and crosswords. It is clear that the latter are bland and lifeless by comparison.
Ethics of genealogical research
Ethical issues are rife in the application of genetic technology. The application to deep genealogy is no exception.
Comparison of genetic information from a few individuals can allow conclusions to be drawn about very large
family groups. In particular, issues of paternity can be decided which may have potential implications for all of the
descendants of the individual ancestor concerned.
Some people possibly find traditional genealogy intrusive and a threat to privacy, but at least the information being
collected and collated is essentially in the public domain. With DNA testing we may inadvertently uncover family
secrets which have never been in any sense public, may have been forgotten by the families concerned or may
not even have been known with certainty by those most closely involved at the time.
Deep genealogists (euphemistically?) refer to the failure to transfer a surname from biological father to his child as
a mis-paternity event. This obviously occurs in most births arising from an extramarital or adulterous relationship,
whether or not the mother is married. Social and biological fatherhood also diverge in the process of adoption.
The Stout surname project takes account of the potential sensitivity of all DNA information and protects the
privacy of participants by placing limits on disclosure. In particular, results and analysis will be posted only in the
password-protected participants web pages on this site. Access will be provided only to participants, potential
participants and and Prof. Wilson.