What are the Pros and Cons of Genetic Testing for Ancestry?

Are you on the fence about DNA testing?  Are you wondering whether doing an autosomal DNA test for genetic ancestry is going to help you learn more about your family?  Is the science reliable?  Is your data secure? 

In this post, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of DNA testing for ancestry and help you come to a more informed decision about whether or not this type of DNA test is right for you.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should let you know that I am a huge fan of DNA testing.  I decided to write this post because many of the articles that I read that are against DNA testing are written by people who have not actually tried it. 

I’ve been writing about DNA testing and interpreting test results for a few years now, and have extensive genealogical research experience.  My goal is to provide a fair and balanced view of the pros and cons for you, my dear reader.

Advantages of genetic testing for ancestry (pros)

Autosomal DNA tests analyze your autosomal DNA, which is the DNA that you inherit on your numbered chromosomes.  You inherit 50% of this DNA from your mother, and 50% from your father.  This type of testing is incredibly useful. 

The advantages I’ll discuss here will focus primarily on the information that you can learn from this DNA.

Genetic DNA testing can give you an idea of where you ancestors lived

Every autosomal DNA testing company offers what is commonly known as an “ethnicity estimate”, or an “ancestry composition”.  At Family Tree DNA it is called a “myOrigins” estimate. 

What it is is a basic estimate of where your ancestors may have lived going back as far as several hundred years. 

The important thing to know is that we inherit 50% of each of our parent’s DNA, so the test can only “test” the DNA that we did inherit.

This is what my estimate looks like (from Ancestry DNA):

Example of expanded ethnicity estimate on ancestry dna

DNA testing can help you prove that your family tree is accurate

When you get your DNA results back, you can go through your DNA matches and their family trees to get an idea as to how accurate your family tree is. 

Are you trying to prove that you are descended from someone famous

Want to figure out who your biological grandfather was? 

Do you want to solve that 100-year old family mystery? 

Your DNA matches can help you do all of this, and more.

DNA testing can help you find living DNA relatives

If you know that you have living, breathing family members out there in the world, but you don’t know how to find them, DNA testing can help find them.  My mother found two first cousins who were previously unknown to her family, along with dozens of other more distant relatives. 

Some people find siblings, parents, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and cousins that they never knew about before.  Who will you find?

Genetic testing for ancestry is much cheaper than hiring a professional genealogist

DNA testing is a very useful tool for building a family tree or verifying research.  It’s fun and easy to learn how to use DNA like this, and so the average person will be able to do it on their own. 

DNA testing usually costs around $100 (sometimes less if you catch a good sale), which is much cheaper than the $2000-5000 that you might pay to a professional genealogist to research your family tree.

Adding your DNA to the database of testing companies can help others learn about their families

Even if you aren’t interested in continuing your family tree research, doing a DNA test just to know about your ethnicity actually helps others learn more about their ancestry. 

You’ll show up as a DNA match, and they can see matches that they share in common with you – or don’t share in common with you – to determine more about their DNA matches.  So you are actually helping people out even if you aren’t actively involved in the process.

You can take your DNA results to the next level by uploading to other sites and painting your chromosomes

Since this post is for people who haven’t decided to test yet, I won’t go into too many details about this advantage.  All I’ll say is that you can get as involved, scientific, and technical as you want with your DNA. 

Want to learn how to paint your chromosomes?  Triangulate DNA segments to find common ancestors?  Isolate specific locations on a chromosome attributed to a particular gene? 

You can do all of this – and more – with your simple DNA test results.

Not interested in getting all scientific?  That’s okay, too – you don’t have to.  You can still learn a lot just by exploring the basics.

DNA testing could lead into a fun new hobby for you, like it did for me

When I was a teenager and young adult, I was generally bored with old family stories.  My paternal great-grandmother and great-great grandmother had both done extensive family tree research. 

They had traveled all over the US and even to Europe in search of family documents and information, so I thought that there wasn’t much left for me to really do, assuming I would ever be interested. 

Boy, was I wrong! 

I had completely overlooked the fact that almost no research had been done on my mother’s side of the family, and that many maternal lines are ignored in family tree research.

While I became slightly more interested in genealogy after starting a family, DNA testing is what really got me hooked on the family tree research.  You can be as involved as you want to be in this new hobby, and I’ve made new friends and family connections along the way. 

It is my favorite thing to do now!  I’m under 40, and in love with a hobby that I thought was only for the retired crowd.

Disadvantages of genetic testing for ancestry (cons)

Alas, nothing is perfect – DNA testing included.  I tried very hard to come up with an accurate list of disadvantages, even though I don’t want to discourage you from testing.  You deserve as much information as possible, however, so here it goes:

There are limitations to what you can learn from DNA testing

Towards the beginning of this post, I mentioned that we only inherit 50% of our parent’s DNA.  This means you only inherit 50% of your mother’s DNA and 50% of your father’s DNA. 

This also means that there is 50% of DNA from each of your parents that you don’t inherit, and this is one of the major limitations of autosomal DNA testing. 

Contained within that 50% of DNA that is not passed down from both of your parents is DNA that could reveal more information about your ethnicity, DNA matches, and family migration routes.

Furthermore, this pattern of only inheriting 50% of DNA from either parent occurs each generation, and valuable information is lost each time.  Our genome is not long enough to share DNA with all of our ancestors, so there is a lot of information about our family’s history that is not contained in our DNA.

You can discover uncomfortable family secrets through DNA testing

DNA testing is only recommended for people who are ready to learn anything and everything about their family, including the good, the bad, and the ugly.  DNA doesn’t lie to us, it doesn’t know how to spare our feelings, and it doesn’t know how to keep secrets. 

People have discovered that the father (or mother!) they grew up with wasn’t their biological parent, half-siblings, and other surprise family relationships through testing. 

Additionally, people often discover an ethnicity that surprises or disappoints them – so you really have to be the kind of person who can handle these types of shocks.

You might not like your DNA relatives

If you find close family that you weren’t expecting, there is a chance that you won’t like them.  With the advent of social media, we often learn more about our relatives than we might like to know, and sometimes it can be disappointing to learn that our newly discovered family members don’t share our values in common.

DNA testing technology is relatively new, and there is still a lot to learn

The technology for determining ethnicity estimates is still relatively new.  The DNA testing companies occasionally rollout updates to their estimates, either because of updated technology for comparisons, or bigger/improved reference populations. 

This often gives people the impression that the science is unreliable, when it is actually a developing science.  Even so, for those looking for definitive answers right out of the box, this can be a disadvantage.

For many people, DNA testing for ancestry is still a luxury

While DNA testing is cheaper than it used to be, and cheaper than hiring a professional genealogist, it isn’t free, and is still considered a luxury some people just can’t afford.

So should I take a DNA test?

I am still of the opinion that DNA testing offers far more benefits than disadvantages, and I recommend it to everyone – including my friends and family.  While I understand that it won’t turn into a fun hobby for everyone, I think learning more about where we came from can help us better understand who we are, and even who we want to become. 

From learning about our immigrant ancestors to exploring where our ancient ancestors might have lived, DNA testing provides us with a really amazing resource.

Are you ready to take a test?  I recommend testing with Ancestry DNA, and you can get your test via the following link.  I’ll get a small commission if you decide to purchase through this link, which is really appreciated! Discovery the story AncestryDNA® can tell


I hope that this post helped you understand a little more about what you can and can’t do with your DNA test results, some of the limitations that currently exist, and pros and cons that you might not have considered before. 

If you have any questions about something that you read here, or would like to add a comment, I would love to hear from you in the discussion below.

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