With the rise in consumer DNA tests and online genealogy, people might soon have a pretty good idea where their families came from for generations. But are we putting too much faith in DNA? Can our genetic ancestry really tell us anything about ourselves? And what happens when DNA databases become playgrounds for true crime sleuths?
- Carl Zimmer, science journalist and author of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity
- Kristen V. Brown, biotechnology reporter at Bloomberg
- Kim Tallbear, author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science
- Clan_McCrimmon, moderator of the Lyle Stevik subreddit
- Colleen Fitzpatrick and Margaret Press, cofounders of DNA Doe
- Kelly Hills, cofounder of Rogue Bioethics
- She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity
- Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science
- The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants
- In an Age of Gene Editing and Surrogacy, What Does Heredity Mean?
- How DNA Testing Botched My Family’s Heritage, and Probably Yours, Too
- DNA testing is like the ‘Wild West’; should it be more tightly regulated?
- DNA test kits: Consider the privacy implications
- The ingenious and ‘dystopian’ DNA technique police used to hunt the ‘Golden State Killer’ suspect
- The Strange Case of the Man With No Name
- Web Sleuths: Lyle Stevik
- Reddit: Lyle Stevik
- GED Match
- Active DNA Doe Cases
- DNA Doe Lyle Stevik Press Release
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Rose: Hello and welcome to Flash Forward! I’m Rose and I’m your host. Flash Forward is a show about the future. Every episode we take on a specific possible… or not so possible future scenario. We always start with a little field trip to the future, to check out what’s going on, and then we teleport back to today to talk to experts about how that world we just heard might really go down. Got it? Great! Just as a heads up, this episode does discuss the topic of suicide, so, adjust your dial accordingly.
This episode we’re starting in the year 2063.[office sounds, shuffling papers] [phone rings]
Detective 1: Hey.
Detective 2: So the Pitchfork sequence came back.
Detective 1: Oh great.
Detective 2: Eh, not great. The tree is dead.
Detective 1: What do you mean?
Detective 2: No links, nothing. We tried running it through a few times. The DNA sequence is there, and it’s human, we did check, but … no links. No relatives at all in the database.
Detective 1: I didn’t even know that was possible.
Detective 2: I’ve seen it once before, a guy born and raised in a cult. Nobody in the community believed in science or medicine. So they never did any DNA tests, nobody had been sequenced for over 100 years.
Detective 1: Huh, weird. How did you figure out who he was.
Detective 2: We didn’t, someone confessed.
Detective 1: The Pitchfork case doesn’t really seem like a cult thing though? Autopsy said heart attack. Not suicide or murder or anything.
Detective 2: Yeah it’s weird. Maybe one of those tin foil hat super paranoid people? But… it would have to be a whole family, a whole extended family for generations.. We’ve got a big enough database that just one person opting out doesn’t really mean anything anymore.
Detective 1: Or, someone is messing with their DNA to hide something.
Detective 2: … I thought that was an urban legend.
Detective 1: I dunno, maybe. Do you have another explanation?
Detective 2: Probably just a lab malfunction honestly.
Detective 1: Okay, well you go talk to them because I don’t want to. They’re mean down there.
Rose: So, this future is one in which pretty much everybody gets their DNA sequenced and loads it up into ancestry databases, and as a result knows their family tree at least for a couple of generations. You’ve probably seen the ads for this kind of DNA genealogy before. And today, we’re going to talk about what the future of genetic genealogy might mean for culture, science, identity, and… as you heard in the intro, crime.
Statistically speaking, you probably know someone who’s really into genealogy.
Carl Zimmer: Apparently, in terms of search terms that people use on the Internet, genealogy is is the top entry, except for porn.
Rose: This is Carl Zimmer, he’s a science journalist and and he’s got a new book out all about the history and future of heredity
Carl: called She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity. We all kind of look at our parents or grandparents and kind of wonder, well, is that who I came from and did they give something to me that makes me me? And maybe having kids of my own I started thinking well how are they going to turn out? And are they going to be like me or not.
Rose: But family trees have been important long before the internet?
Carl: Heredity just the word itself comes from the Roman Empire from Herodotus and in Latin and the Romans like like other ancient peoples had lots of very elaborate rules for how people inherited things. So somebody dies and then who gets the stuff.
Rose: For the vast majority of history, most people knew pretty well what their family tree looked like, right? You lived with your family and often your extended family. People didn’t move around that much. But then, humans started moving around a lot more. And in countries with lots of immigration and colonization, you see a much greater interest in genealogy because often… the precise details of where people came from, have been lost.
Carl: For example, one of my ancestors named Roger Goodspeed came over in the 1630s to Massachusetts. And if you’re coming from some little farming village in England and you’re going to Massachusetts you know on a sailing ship you’re never going back. That’s it. So he would have to have said goodbye to that to that village and to all of that ancestry going back centuries that was in and around that village. And all he could bring with him were stories about those ancestors. And Roger Goodspeed was probably illiterate, judging by how he would sign documents with an X. And all he could do was tell stories to his children, and maybe they told stories to their children but you know, after a couple of generations, those stories have a tendency of petering out.
Even the early Americans were really obsessed with their family trees.
Carl: Benjamin Franklin actually you know went to England and did a lot of genealogical research trying to reconstruct his family tree, and he went to these villages where his ancestors had come from and he heard stories about and so on because it really mattered. He really wanted to get a connection. Thomas Jefferson he really wanted to know where his ancestors came from. He did geological research and he was trying to figure out you know his family coat of arms back in England.
Rose: Obviously for other folks, their family tree is a mystery because they were imprisoned, stolen away from their lands, and shipped off as slaves. For most of those folks, there are no genealogical records to even go back to, their entire history has been erased. We’re going to come back to those folks in a little bit.
But the desire to understand our family tree is about more than just a historical urge, right? Knowing about who your family is can have health implications. It can explain physical traits. We know now that this connection is genetic, that parents pass their genes down to their offspring. But before anybody knew what genes were, people understood that there was some sort of physical connection between past and future generations. Humans have bred animals and plants for certain traits for a long time. Before they knew that they were meddling with genes, they basically thought that what they were doing was magic.
Carl: If you had asked around 100 years ago and asked people: “Do you know who luser Burbank is?” In the United States, most people would probably say “Oh yeah of course I know he is the plant wizard.”
Rose: Luther Burbank, the plant wizard, grew up in Massachusetts, the thirteenth of eighteen children. And when he was 21 he bought a plot of land and started experimenting with breeding potatoes. And right off the bat, he had a pretty huge success.
Carl: You know so if you go to McDonald’s and order some French fries you’re eating the potatoes that Luther Burbank first created. Russet Burbank potato they’re just much better than previous potatoes. And and he brought them into existence in the mid 1800’s hundreds just through his own magic almost as it were.
Rose: Burbank sold the rights to the Burbank potato for $150, and used that money to move to Santa Rosa, California.
Carl: and after a few years of was struggling as a farm worker he was able to build a reputation for himself as somebody who could create amazing varieties that people would want to buy and he would sell them to nurserymen and so on and he became extraordinarily wealthy.
Rose: Remember, this is before anybody knows anything about genetics, basically. And that’s why he’s known as the wizard.
Carl: And he would talk about it in very mystical terms you know that he that you know he was just stirring up the heredity inside of these plants and then somehow they were doing amazing things, for him, almost.
Rose: But right around this same time, scientists in the US and Europe are starting to rediscover the work of Gregor Mendel. You might remember the story of Mendel from high school biology? The guy who did all the experiments on peas? He would cross breed them and find that certain traits seemed to be passed down in predictable patterns. Luther Burbank didn’t know anything about this, but scientists were starting to think that by studying Luther Burbank they might be able to better understand this Mendel stuff.
Carl: They would travel to his farm in Santa Rosa California hoping to crack the mysteries of his magic and that that would somehow really get them to the true secrets of heredity.
Rose: It was apparently this incredibly frustrating experience for these scientists. Here was this guy who was doing all these amazing things with plants. He clearly knew something, understood something, about heredity, that could be useful to science. But when they would travel to Burbank’s lab to try and figure out what it was that he knew, what his secret was… they would come up empty handed. At one point, the Carnegie Institute actually paid Burbank a thousand dollars every year for his insights, and they sent a young geneticist named George Shull to go shadow Burbank and record his experiments.
Carl: And you know poor Shull this young scientists would follow Burbank around all day everyday and Burbank would just get very annoyed with him and just just try to avoid him at all costs. And then after a while Shull just said like you know I just don’t think there’s any there there. I just there’s no there are no scientific records. He’s not really doing experiments. This isn’t science. I mean he’s a he’s more of an artist.
Rose: To make things more confusing, with Burbank it was sometimes hard to tell which of his ideas were good, and which ones were scams.
Carl: he he became convinced that he could create a big valuable crop by creating cactuses that didn’t have spines. And then he could feed them to cattle in the desert and they would do you’d have lots of herds of cattle that would be thriving on this new food. And for a while this was a very popular plant and people would order it from Burbank and his associates. But then after a while what it turned out was that in a lot of cases they were actually taking regular cactuses and picking off the spines and then packing them in the mail and sending them off. And these things would eventually grow their spines back.
Rose: Despite these, uh, less than honest efforts, Burbank created a TON of new plants. Hundreds of plants, some of which you can still buy in catalogues and in farms today. He made some real improvements to the fruits and vegetables out there using breeding techniques, and a very rudimentary understanding of heredity.
Today we know that what Burbank was doing was selecting for certain genes in his breeding techniques. At least when he wasn’t hustling people by peeling the piles off cacti. And that genetic component of our heritage, our heredity, has collided full force with the pre-existing obsession with ancestry and genealogy. You’ve probably seen the commercials for various DNA ancestry tests where you can spit into a tube, and a company will use your DNA to tell you where you come from, right? Here’s an ad for Ancestry.com.
“Kyle”: Growing up we were German. We danced in a German dance group, I wore lederhosen. When I first got on Ancestry I was really surprised that I wasn’t finding all of these germans in my, uh, tree. I decided to have my DNA tested through Ancestry DNA. The big surprise was, we’re not German at all. 52% of my DNA comes from Scotland and Ireland. So, I traded in my lederhosen for a kilt.
Woman’s voice: Ancestry has many paths to discovering … (fade out)
Rose: So Kyle thought he was German. He grew up with German traditions. But his DNA test told him in fact that his genes came from Ireland so… he gave up all his German culture? This is weird, right? Since when do your genes tell you what your family traditions should be?
When I first started seeing these commercials on TV, I have to say I just laughed. Nobody would do that, I thought. Nobody would be ready to give up their whole heritage because of a silly DNA test right? I was wrong.
Kristen V Brown: My mom and my aunt did Ancestry DNA’s ancestry test and it came back and told them that they had all this mediterranean DNA, which didn’t really make sense, and they had barely any Middle Eastern DNA and my aunt just kind of freaked out. My aunt is super into genealogy. She’s been doing the family tree for a long time and she was just like, where is this Italian from? I thought we were Syrian. She like went into this whole like like monologue about how she needed to start learning make pasta and like this is why she liked pasta so much.
Rose: This is Kristen Brown
Kristen: and I am a biotechnology reporter at Bloomberg.
Rose: So before her mom and aunt took the fateful DNA test, here’s what they knew about their family history.
Kristen: So my grandfather was adopted and he was adopted by a Mexican family. He grew up in basically a Mexican ghetto in Dallas not actually knowing that he wasn’t Mexican you know Spanish was his first language. My grandfather basically only Mexican food. He watched telenovelas. But when he was 10 years old I think he discovered that he was actually adopted. And the family lore he pestered these nuns at the orphanage where he was adopted hopped a bus to Pennsylvania 10 years old and went to go meet his birth mother. He did not tell his parents that he was a witness by the way.
So my grandfather goes to Pennsylvania and finds out that he is actually Syrian. His mother lived she was she had him at 16. They lived in a very insular Syrian community. And so my grandfather had always thought that he was fully Syrian and we really had no reason to not believe that. I mean he he looked Syrian which was sort of why he could pass as a Mexican for so long you know he was he was dark dark hair dark eyes.
Rose: So this is the family story. Then, Kristen’s mom and aunt do their DNA test, and they get these results that say Italian, and they freak out!
Kristen: We’re all sitting around in my grandmother’s living room when my aunt opened her test, and my mom opened her test and they both started flipping out. Which was kind of ridiculous just because we knew my grandfather was Syrian but we identified culturally as Hispanic anyways since he was adopted you know like that was my grandfather’s first language. So like our culture was the Mexican culture. But all of a sudden the DNA has told me that she was Italian or Greek and she was like oh my god I need to learn to make pasta.
Rose: Now, Kristen is a reporter who writes extensively about biotechnology, including DNA tests, and she had always thought that those Ancestry.com commercials were silly too. Who would do that? And then all of a sudden, here she was with her own family ready to abandon ship on their Syrian heritage.
Kristen: But in that moment I realized how powerful not being accurate can be. My aunt was ready to completely change her sense of self by just with one result from Ancestry DNA. An ancestry DNA test gave her an identity crisis and then it sent me on a hunt to disprove her. So she could you know like calm down.
Rose: And to disprove her Kirsten decided to do three different consumer DNA tests:
Kristen: I sent my spit to Ancestry DNA which is Ancestry.com’s DNA testing arm to 23 and Me and I also sent it to Helix which doesn’t ancestry test with National Geographic.
Rose: And, as she expected, she got three different results.
Rose [on the phone]: Can you tell me what Ancestry DNA told you you were.
Kristen: Yes ‘m actually I’m pulling up my all here. So 32 percent Scandinavian on the ancestry test and it gave me a little bit of southern European a little bit of Irish a little bit of British and 11 percent Middle Eastern as well as 10 percent the Caucasus.
Rose: [on the phone]: Okay and then the National Geographic one, or Helix.
Kristen: So Helix basically told me I was like half south or not half. Like yeah like 23 percent Southwestern European 20 per cent northwestern European 16 percent Asia Minor Ananya like 9 percent Jewish diaspora some Eastern European which didn’t show up in any other test. … OK. Heading over to 23 and Me’s ancestry report. Okay yeah so I think these results were from January and they said I was… let’s look at the Middle Eastern… I was 3.3 percent specifically Middle Eastern and overall 5.5 percent Middle Eastern North Africa.
Rose: There are a couple of reasons why each company winds up giving different ancestry data. When you send in your spit, companies sequence only a handful of snippets of your genome. Then they compare those snippets to their reference population, which is basically a bank of other genomes that they know the origins of, to see what matches. But nobody is using the same bank of genomes to compare to.
Kristen: So each company has its own individual different reference population and then they each have their own individual proprietary super secret algorithm. So we’re starting with like two completely different factors for each company a different reference population and a different algorithm. So you can imagine that when you have a different data set and a different algorithms you can very easily get completely different results.
Rose: An even within a single company, your results can actually change over time. 23 and Me, like a lot of companies, is always updating their algorithms and their reference populations. Today 23 and Me’s results for Kristen are actually different than they were when she first did this in January.
Kristen: Today… ancestry says that I am 15.3 percent Western Asian, North Africa, so they actually changed the geographic terminology too.
Rose [on the phone]: It is weird that you can just log in like a weird Neopets thing where it’s like “let me check my stats.”
Kristen: Yeah it’s actually like suddenly suddenly since January I’ve become almost 10 percent more Middle Eastern. That’s like pretty good right?
Rose: And this kind of gets at the weirdness of putting so much cultural weight on your genes right? Should Kristen be doing 10 percent more Middle Eastern stuff now, since her results have changed? And her family history makes things even more complex right, her family traditions are largely Mexican, from the family that adopted her grandfather. But genetically, Kristen isn’t Mexican at all.
Kristen: Already I don’t think I have my DNA as my culture because I know that I’m not genetically Mexican and yet like that is the cultural heritage I was brought up in. Which is kind of interesting because for me like that was already kind of conflicting right. I really identify with a lot of aspects of the Mexican culture but I never had to deal with any of the racism or you know like biases that anybody has against Mexican people because I am so white looking you know I have blue eyes I have red hair I’m pale. I do not look Mexican at all. And I identify with that culture. So already for me like I never thought of DNA as related to culture because I don’t have Mexican DNA or not is the culture that I like feel close to.
Rose: So for Kristen, no amount of DNA testing is going to really tell her what culture she should connect with most. But for some people, if the Ancestry.com commercials are to be believed, genes might hold the key to their culture. And this is something that the scholar Donna Haraway and others have called gene fetishism.
Kim Tallbear: Gene fetishism is when genetic links and genetic relationships come to stand in for a much more complex sets of social relations. So tracing one’s a little bit of one’s ancestry back to some particular human that you can’t even name probably in in history long ago is quite different than having sets of lived relationships among a particular people.
My name is Kim Tallbear and I am a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples Technoscience and Environment at the University of Alberta I’m an enrolled citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate which is a tribe in South Dakota.
Rose: Kim is also the author of a book called Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. And she’s been studying the ways that ancestry and DNA and genetic genealogy intersects with native issues for years now.
Kim: There’s a particular kind of desire to find a Native American or an Indian in the family tree by a lot of Americans a lot of Americans have this mythology that they’ve got native ancestry, often with no proof and no lived relationship with with Indigenous communities.
Rose: In fact, according to Ancestry dot com, the MOST COMMON question they get from people once they get their DNA results back is “where’s my Native American DNA.” In fact, the rise of these online ancestry tests has actually been kind of a thorn in the side of tribes.
Kim: Well what’s been happening since these DNA tests have hit the market back in the early 2000s is you’ve got these completely disconnected people who have no lived history with an Indigenous community who had these stories of an Indian in the family tree they think “Oh maybe I’m related to this tribe.” And they start sending in these DNA tests to tribal enrollment directors and the tribal enrollment director we’ll open up that envelope and say “what is this? I don’t. You’re 23 percent Native American? So? Who’s your ancestor on my base roll that I can link you up to when I need to genealogical documentation to do that.” So it’s really interesting like they don’t know what to do with these tests.
Rose: Simply having Native American DNA doesn’t really mean anything, for most tribes.
Kim: What tribes are interested in in the United States is documenting one’s biological descent from an ancestor listed on the base rolls.
Rose: Base rolls are these lists of people that tribes put together around the turn of the 20th century when the US federal government was dolling out land.
Kim: Most of that land was deemed to be surplus land because by then you’d had such a genocide of indigenous people there weren’t as many left. So at that point how are you going to decide which Indians to give land to if you don’t have a list of Indians right? And so tribes the tribal groups didn’t have registers. You know they were kinship structures, and kinship is a little bit fluid you know and so who belongs to a community has actually historically been a really dynamic and ever shifting kind of population. But when you start having all of this federal management of native peoples lives and bodies and land that’s when you need lists of Indians, lists of tribal members and so contemporary tribes today go back to those base roles because we are using biological descent from those rolls.
Rose: The fact is that… most Americans don’t HAVE a Native American in the family, they don’t have any Native American DNA. And what that even means, the idea of Native American DNA in the first place, is really complicated.
Kim: Just to take the Americas you’ve got hundreds if not probably thousands of distinct peoples actually throughout the Americas both pre-contact and today. And people wouldn’t, you know, this idea that you would group thousands of distinct cultures and peoples under this umbrella that we have now come to recognize as a racial umbrella called Native American DNA. You know it’s I understand why scientists do this because they’re looking at ancient history through the lens of genomics but it really it’s just not the way that peoples in the Americas obviously would have thought about themselves.
Rose: Plus, remember how Kristen got three different results from her DNA test? That kind of variability is even WORSE when you talk about Native American DNA. Remember that these companies are comparing your DNA with their reference population. The bigger the reference population for a certain region, the more accurate the results will be. Well, most ancestry sites don’t have very much native american DNA at all. Which makes the results on that front… not exactly super accurate.
And in fact, most Native People don’t need DNA tests to tell them who they came from, because tribes have now kept really detailed genealogy records.
Kim: You’ve got these officers at tribes all over the U.S. where they have extensive genealogical records. But the thing about Native people who are already entangled with their communities because we have this thing called enrollment or citizenship. They already know who they’re related to and a much more fine tuned way. So they would never have to rely on a DNA test in the first place to tell them that they’re related.
Rose: So… this episode is about the future of DNA genealogy right? And about what happens when everybody has their DNA sequenced and loaded up into these databases so they can find their ancestors. We’ve talked about where this all came from, how we wound up in a moment where we seem to think that DNA can dictate our culture or our identity. We’ve talked about some of the misuses of this DNA technology. But right now, most people haven’t had their DNA sequenced by these companies and websites. What happens if they do? How do all the things we just talked about change when it’s EVERYBODY who knows their background and history.
All that … plus the first ever TRUE CRIME segment on Flash Forward, after this quick break.[[ADS]]
Rose: Okay, so we’ve covered the ways these genetic tests can be inaccurate and weird and get into sticky places when it comes to culture and identity and who we really are. But there are some other, weirder applications to this kind of DNA genealogy that we’re about to see a whole lot more of. And one of them, is that it’s going to be used to solve crimes.
So we’re going to start this half of the episode with a story about an unidentified body. True crime finally comes to Flash Forward! If you want to skip this part, you can jump ahead about 15 minutes.
Okay, so… on Friday, September 14, 2001, a young man checked into the Lake Quinault Inn, which is a really tiny hotel in a small town in Washington state called Amanda Park.
Clan_McCrimmon: Which is of which is a very very small community. I guess you could see perhaps in the middle of maybe nowhere because it’s not it’s not exactly a known place.
Rose: This is one of the moderators for the true crime group dedicated to this case. She goes by Clan_McCrimmon on Reddit and she didn’t want to use her real name for the podcast. So we’re going to call her McCrimmon for the rest of this episode.
McCrimmon: And he checked in, It was about 4:30 in the afternoon. How he got there nobody knows for sure. They thought maybe he came in by bus, but neither of the bus drivers recognized him. So then he went and checked in as Lyle Stevik from Meridian Idaho. So he initially I guess planned to stay for one night or said he was going to stay for one night and then he could and then he ended up staying a few more nights. Why we’re not totally sure though.
Rose: So Lyle Stevik stays at this hotel for a few days. He’s kind of weird. The innkeeper has a sort of weird interaction with him at one point, but he mostly keeps to himself.
McCrimmon: He was seen pacing alongside the hot the highway. He did converse somewhat with the maid and the and the debt the clerk.
Rose: Then, at 11:30 on Monday, September 17, the maid went to clean Lyle’s room. He was supposed to check out that morning, but he hadn’t yet. So she knocks, nobody answers, she goes in, and she finds Lyle.
McCrimmon: Initially she thought he was praying she called the clerk’s nephew, they went back in to go and check the room again and he was they found he was dead.
Rose: Lyle Stevik had hung himself in his room, using his belt.
On a nightstand, he had left a comment card with the words “FOR THE ROOM” written on the back. But it wasn’t a suicide note. Inside there were eight $20 bills, to pay for his room and tip the staff.
So, obviously the hotel calls police, paramedics and law enforcement arrive, and they look around his room. Lyle has no identification, no drivers license no credit cards nothing to identify him. And then they search the information he had given at the front desk, the name Lyle Stevik and an address in Meridian Idaho, and they found nothing. Lyle Stevik was a fake name. And the address…
McCrimmon: Was not an actual ad or not his real address. It was a Best Western motel.
Rose: So they had no idea who this guy was. And they didn’t really have any lead. Lyle didn’t seem to match any missing persons reports. And, like our moderator said, Bay Harbor Washington is a really rural area without a lot of resources so they weren’t going to launch an all out, expensive, hunt to figure out who he was. So from 2001 to about 2006, this case was completely cold. There were no clues. It seemed like Lyle Stevik’s real identity would stay a mystery forever.
But then in 2006, McCrimmon was perusing a missing persons database. Which might sound kind of weird but is a thing that true crime people do for fun!
McCrimmon: And I came across him on the now defunct database. So then just something pulled me when I was 15 at the time something just pulled me in into him.
Rose: When you read about Lyle Stevik you hear this kind of phrasing a lot. Something about him pulls people in. But it’s really hard for those people to describe what exactly that thing is.
McCrimmon: I just looked at his picture and it’s like he’s just it’s like he just I guess is, I don’t know if it’s distinguishable is the right word but he was kind of distinct I guess from everyone else and so I guess I just pulled me in because I’m kind of wondering like Who is this guy. It’s like he was different from everybody else in a way. I’m trying to kind of describe it in a way that kind of makes sense but… I don’t quite know
Rose: So McCrimmon gets really interested in trying to figure out who Lyle Stevik is.
McCrimmon: rom then on it’s like it became my goal to get him identified so that he could go home because because in my mind should end up the way he did.
Rose: So she went on to this forum online called WebSleuths and she posted about him. Just his picture, and the very limited information that the autopsy and public records showed about him. And this started a conversation on WebSleuths that, over time, got really big. Eventually the community moved from the WebSleuths forum to other social media sites. There are nearly 4,000 people subscribed to the Lyle Stevik, Subreddit, and a handful of Facebook groups as well.
And those groups are really active.
McCrimmon: We’ve actually we crowdfunded an age regression recreating while how he might have worked when he was younger. We also ended up getting the police reports later on through a Freedom of Information Act.
Rose: Members spent hours and hours combing through all this information looking for leads. Which led to some pretty out there theories about who this guy was.
McCrimmon: Well the 911 one in particular which I think was which I think was a huge long shot and kind of silly. A lot of people thought he was the 9/11 hijackers because of the time because of the time between 9/11 and the time between that and the time that he killed himself.
Rose: So this idea went that Lyle Stevik was supposed to have been one of the hijackers during 9/11, but he didn’t go through with it, and the guilt and fear he felt over not doing it led him to commit suicide. There’s… no real evidence for this theory. Just to be clear.
But this wasn’t the only … strange theory about Lyle’s identity.
McCrimmon: Somebody thought that he was perhaps a circus employee because because because of the isotope reports, that placed him in all these different states or at least all these different parts of the United States and some of it actually coincided with there with their touring schedule.
Rose: Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of these leads really went anywhere. But McCrimmon and her sleuths never gave up hope.
McCrimmon: No I always, I always believed that we would find out who we that we would find out who he was.
Rose: Still from the outside, things were not looking good. Sure, there were all these people online thinking about and researching his case, but they couldn’t figure it out, and they weren’t really coming up with any new clues. So from 2006 to 2018 there were really no new leads in this case, even as the online conversation grew and grew.
Then, these two women stepped in.
Colleen Fitzpatrick: I’m Colleen Fitzpatrick. I am co-founder of the DNA Doe project. I am the founder of Identifinders International. I work on cold cases for the police using genetic genealogy.
Margaret Press: I’m Margeret Press and I’m the other co-founder of the DNA Doe project. I’ve been doing genetic genealogy for several years mostly helping adoptees find their biological parents
Rose: Colleen and Margaret met years ago
Colleen: The same way everybody does! On Facebook! [laughter] I mean, DUH. No… I own a Facebook Page Forensic Genealogy and Margaret started pondering why can’t we do John and Jane Doe’s?
Rose: John and Jane Does are bodies that have never been identified.
Colleen: And she continued to ponder even as I said well they don’t do that, do they, with ancestry. And she continued to ponder and I said maybe I’ll ponder with you. And so we continue to ponder and now that’s where we are today.
Rose: Today Colleen and Margaret run a non-profit called DNA Doe, which basically uses forensic genealogy techniques, to try and identify these unidentified bodies, these Jane and John Does. Now, neither Colleen nor Margaret come from a genetics or a law enforcement background.
Colleen: I have a doctorate nuclear physics from Duke University. I designed laser systems for NASA and the Department of Defense. I owned a company and in high tech. In the meantime I got interested in genetic genealogy in DNA. And when we closed up in 2005 we closed the company for many reasons we went into forensics and carried DNA with us.
Margaret: And, Margaret here, my doctorate is actually in linguistics from UCLA, I grew up in the L.A. area. And I’ve worked in software development for my most of my career. And along the way was just a hobby hobby genealogist for many many years. And when DNA testing hit the market in 2000 when I discovered that and that it was affordable and how exciting it was to find out genetically some of the things that I had been working on just with as they call them paper trails, it was just the most exciting discovery of my life I believe.
Rose: Even though they come to this from maybe an untraditional angle, Colleen and Margaret do have is a very particular set of skills that make DNA Doe successful. Margaret has years of genealogical sleuthing under her belt in her work helping adoptees find their biological parents. And Colleen has connections with law enforcement from her other companies. And it just so happened, that Colleen knew the folks working in Gray’s Harbor, which is where Lyle Stevik died.
Margaret: Back in February, a Colleen was contacted by someone from the Reddit group that follows, has followed the Lyle Stevik the case for years and years. They’ve been trying to look at crime scene photos and figure out who he is, and they’ve been very very eager to solve his identity.
Rose: And when Colleen and Margaret realized that Lyle Stevik had such a big online community trying to figure out who he was, they decided to tackle the case.
Margaret: And sequencing began, and we funded him overnight from this community eager to see him identified.
So they got a sample of Lyle’s DNA from law enforcement and they sent that DNA off to be sequenced. Now, this isn’t a full sequencing. The human genome contains about three billion base pairs in it,
Margaret: The bioinformatics team then takes from those three billion locations and carves out a much smaller file for us that looks just like with something Ancestry or 23andMe would produce it’s more like 600000 locations or SNIPS as we call them and that is the file that we can then upload to GEDMatch.
Rose: That’s G E D Match. GED Match
Margaret: GEDMatch is a database that we can compare our Doe files with other people who’ve tested it the regular direct consumer company.
Rose: Then the website spits out a huge list of names of folks that the subject in question could be related to. From there, DNA Doe’s team of genealogical research volunteers get to work, scouring the web for information about each person on that list, and trying to connect the dots and figure out who Lyle Stevik might actually be related to.
Margaret: His results came in in late March and we have now about 20 volunteers who’ve been working at various times on at least for a month and a half now. It took a lot of work, because he came from a community where there were a lot of intermarriages among the ancestors.
Rose: But eventually, just a couple of weeks ago, they found a match.
Margaret: Ultimately we were able to locate some family who were close enough that they knew that one of their relatives had been missing for all these years for up to 20 years.
Rose: So, success. Case closed. The man known as Lyle Stevik has now been identified. His family actually didn’t realize he was dead. They thought he was just missing. Now they know what happened to him. The news of his identification spread super quickly around the Lyle Stevik communities online.
McCrimmon: And I thought oh my god I like I had to click on it to see that it was that it was real because I couldn’t believe it, that it had actually happened.
Rose: When I read through the comments on the subreddit announcement that Lyle had been found, it was… fascinating. Everyone was really excited but… also… some people expressed their own kind of mourning I guess. Because now… the community is kind of over. This thing that they’ve spent thousands and thousands of hours obsessing over… is done. It’s solved.
McCrimmon: There wasn’t so much sadness that it was close but kind of having to kind of get used to the fact that he was now identified because because I had been following him discussing the keys for so long. That he kind of sort of in a way it’s like in a way it’s like it kind of became part of kind of I guess I guess you could say kind of became part of my life in a way.
Rose: The true identity of Lyle Stevik is private information that we won’t be sharing here. Lyle Stevik’s family has been very clear that they do not want his real identity to be out there and shared. McCrimmon and some of the other moderators are moving on to new cases.
McCrimmon: We’re over venturing out to Miami Dade Does which are John and Jane Does that were founded the Miami Dade area.
Rose: For DNA Doe, they’re already on to the next unidentified body.
Colleen: We are going to identify every John and Jane Doe in the country!
Margaret: We’re certainly getting a lot of inquiries for Doe cases and right now the way a lot of agencies are off looking at what kind of DNA they already have available.
Rose: This technique, this DNA matching plus geneology, is likely to get a lot more common in the near future. You might have heard about this kind of DNA matching from the news recently about the accused Golden State Serial Killer. The suspect was identified after years of no leads, using this same technique. DNA Doe doesn’t do criminal cases, they only do unidentified bodies, but this same technique is being used by both law enforcement to hunt for suspects right now.
For Colleen and Margaret, a future in which everybody has their DNA sequenced and loaded up into these genealogy sites, it sounds great.
Margaret: Then the analysis part would be extremely easy. Everyone would have a first cousin once removed in the database. And the shift would really be on the technology of extracting DNA from more and more degraded samples.
Rose: In fact, even just getting access to more databases would be great. Right now, they can only use GEDMatch. Other sites like Ancestry.com won’t let them do this kind of analysis.
Margaret: If we had access to ancestry which is ten times the size of GED match then these cases would be solved very very quickly.
Rose: But there’s also something ethically … let’s say interesting… here right? You have law enforcement utilizing these databases that are really for people to find relatives and firm up their family tree… and the police are using them to catch murderers. And while it’s hard to argue AGAINST catching serial killers, it’s also important to think about how this kind of thing could go awry.
Kelly Hills: Why wouldn’t you want your DNA to be used to catch a bad guy like DUH.
My name is Kelly Hills and I am a bioethicist with the consulting firm Rogue Bioethics.
So there is a George Washington University Law School professor by the name of Dan Solove and he basically is one of the big dudes working on privacy and he calls this did nothing to hide argument. It’s an easy surface response I think because you know we have a knee jerk response of wanting to be good and helpful. But I think that in some ways it’s a very privileged response that probably tends to come from people who aren’t historically having problems with police shooting you for holding a cellphone.
Rose: We know, for example, that these DNA links can be wrong. Which means they could wind up implicating family members or people who had nothing to do with a crime at all. And it’s worth thinking about the precedent that is being set here. These are local law enforcement agencies giving DNA to a non-profit group of volunteer researchers. There’s little to no oversight here. So far, nothing has gone wrong. But… it feels a bit naive to think that it couldn’t.
Kelly: Their intent I understand is really good. And I do not besmirch that at all. There are horrible backlogs of rape kits nationwide. Cold cases that shouldn’t be cold. Police departments don’t have enough resources to tackle these issues and so they’re doing the best things they think they can for their community to try and clear these cases. These are all really good motivations, but that doesn’t mean that the wrong person isn’t going to be fingered for a crime they didn’t commit.
In this case we know investigators are just uploading DNA they have on file to trawl through a large database of possible familial matches. It’s kind of more akin to what the NSA did with online mass surveillance than what we would normally consider appropriate civilian law enforcement.
Rose: And this actually brings us to an added layer of complexity when we start to think about the ethics here, too. Because… when you decide to upload your DNA to a site like GEDmatch you’re not just making that decision for yourself. You’re actually kind of making that decision for everybody you’re closely related to.
Kelly: Well I guess the first thing I want to say is I actually don’t think in terms of DNA tests it’s ever just about the individual because your DNA is never just yours. And that’s what makes DNA testing a little bit different than just about anything else because it’s not just you. It is you, and anybody who shares your DNA. And sharing your DNA can become a very nebulous term these days when we’re able to track, grandfathers, and second cousins, and on.
Rose: For the DNA Doe folks, this is actually an argument in favor of getting your DNA tested and uploading it to the site.
Colleen: And remember too if I’m reluctant to put my DNA up there if my brother does my DNA is virtually there anyway. So you can’t you can’t avoid it. Where are we living right now.
Rose: Kelly… doesn’t exactly see it that way.
Kelly: My dearly departed mother echoes in my head if everybody else jumped off a bridge would you? [laughs] I mean you know, it’s I guess a flip answer, but just because somebody is doing it doesn’t make it right.
Rose: And, beyond the whole “the cops might use your DNA to try and find a killer or ID a body” there are other reasons to be wary of handing your genetic information over to a third party company.
Kelly: They’re bundling it together they’re selling it on to other companies who are doing research there looking for their own information to patent.
Rose: Now, for Colleen and Margaret, they’ve decided that these risks are worth it. That the potential benefits outweigh the risks. And there are totally understandable reasons to want to send off your DNA to find out where your ancestors came from.
Kelly: That’s actually a really compelling question for some people. For people who have been adopted and closed adoptions and they just they have no context for their medical history. And very much people who whose families were part of the Middle Passage trade and who’s, who are descended from slaves, and literally just have this giant blank slate of. “I came from Africa in violence but that’s it.” And want to know where they came from. And these are two audiences in particular that are starting to be very targeted by these companies. I’m very uncomfortable with that because these companies are trying to make money off of pain.
Rose: There actually is one company that does DNA sequencing and doesn’t sell your data or use it in these ways, and it’s specifically for folks whose ancestors were taken during the slave trade.
Kelly: It’s called African Ancestry it’s a 100 percent black owned company with black scientists. It was founded by Dr. Gina Page and Rick Kittles in 2003 and it is particularly fantastic for people who are looking for African lineage African ethnic groups countries of origin etc.. They have a database of over 33,000 lineages across 40 specific countries. It is phenomenally huge compared to any other DNA database out there that’s being targeted towards you. And yeah at least in my mind the fact that they aren’t doing research with your DNA and they’re not selling it is really important because they are just providing a service that answers the question where did my family come from.
Rose: And, I want to be clear here. It’s not that there’s anything ethically dubious about wanting to know your family history right? Learning more about your heritage can be really cool.
But we all should be very, very aware of how closely we want to connect genetics, genealogy, heritage and culture. You don’t have to go all that far back in history to see examples of how heredity and ancestry can be weaponized against marginalized folks.
Kelly: Identity is just so much more than DNA and reducing it down to DNA is deeply concerning because we’ve we’ve done that in the past and that route always leads to racism, and badness, basically.
Rose: And this isn’t really theoretical, either. Dubai recently announced plans to test the DNA of everybody in the country.
Carl: If you are like a trues or a citizen you know someone of Arab descent you know that would sort of you know they would be able to see that from your DNA and if you’re like a guest worker you know if you’re from the Philippines or even a Palestinian they would be able to tell you apart. And that would be a way to sort of genetically determine who gets all the fantastic benefits that come from the oil economy or not.
Rose: That’s Carl Zimmer again.
Carl: Logically it’s doomed to failure but people will try.
Rose: So, you might be wondering when we’re going to talk about gene editing in all of this. You’ve probably heard about all kinds of exciting and scary new advances that let scientists edit human genes. What does that mean for heredity? What does that mean for ancestry? Would that totally bork the DNA genealogy system? The answer is, we don’t know yet. It depends on whether or not the regions that Ancestry sites use are the same regions that people might want to edit.
And I’m going to do a whole other episode about CRISPR and gene editing in a couple of weeks, so, for now, that’s all I’m going to say about that. But I do think one thing is easy to predict about this future: we won’t stop being obsessed with our ancestry. Even as science and technology gives us more answers and more ways of thinking about our histories, it can’t really answer the big question I think drives so much of this, which is: why am I like this? That’s not something any of these tests of techniques can actually answer.
Carl: I think we just look to the past and imagine that somehow we’re kind of like you know a LEGO statue and there are these these LEGO pieces snap together from the past to make us who we are. And so we just keep looking and looking and looking and we and we think that we can find these answers. I just don’t, I don’t think heredity can give us all the answers that we want. And so in a way that just makes us keep searching even harder.[music up]
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. Special thanks this week to our guests. You can find more about the DNA Doe project at http://dnadoeproject.org/. You can find Carl Zimmer’s book, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, wherever you buy books. You can also find Kim Tallbear’s book, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science wherever you buy your books. You can read more of Kristen Brown’s work at kristenvbrown.com and you can check out Kelly Hills’s bioethics consulting group Rogue Bioethics at Rogue Bioethics dot com. Their motto is “A take no prisoners approach to bioethics. (Because taking prisoners would be unethical).” As always links to all those things and more in the show notes.
The voices from this future were played by Jenna Dixon and Josh Dean. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky.
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at email@example.com. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
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