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The meaning and futility of genealogy

The practice of genealogy, the research of one's ancestors, has exploded recently. Ancestry.com has become a huge hit, with millions of subscribers and billions in fortune. Many, if not most, families in the United States have at least one person actively researching the long-forgotten twists and turns of their family tree.

The Lents family, around 1918.

It's an understandable obsession, of course. Preoccupation with who we are and where we come from has plagued humanity since the dawn of civilization. We took pictures of our great-great-grandparents, whom we never met and who are long dead, and all of our house guests were born with their stories. But what does it all really mean?

Genealogical surprises



Ancestry.com and other genealogy companies have made a habit of digging deep into the background of celebrities (something people are even more obsessed with than just genealogy) in order to attract advertisements and new subscribers. In 2008, it was revealed that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama was related to Vice President Dick Cheney. This is an example of the fascinating things genealogy can reveal about our backgrounds.

What does it mean that Barack Obama and Dick Cheney are distant relatives and share an ancestor who lived in Maryland more than 400 years ago? If you ask me I say it means next to nothing.

Until he entered politics, Barack Obama's life couldn't have been more different than Dick Cheney's. Obama grew up as the son of a single mother, partly in progressive and multicultural Hawaii, partly in the island state of Indonesia. His father was mostly absent and his grandparents raised him just like his mother, especially when he stayed in Hawaii when his mother returned to Indonesia. Cheney, on the other hand, had the stereotypical All-American childhood in Nebraska. It is hard to imagine that two citizens of the United States are from different origins. Do they really share a cultural background because of a long-ago split ancestor?

The ancestor linking Cheney and Obama is Mareen Duvall, a French Huguenot who came to the British colony of Maryland in 1650. He built a very successful plantation and fathered many children to three women in a row. Primarily by luck and high position, detailed records of his immigration, estate, and family life have survived. His famous descendants include President Harry Truman, Wallis Simpson, Warren Buffet, Robert Duvall, and many others besides Cheney and Obama.



Only one of Lincoln's four children survived to adulthood, and his offspring were wiped out with the death of Robert Beckwith in 1985.
Source: Winonave / WikiCommons

These celebrities share their Duvall ancestry with tens of thousands of US citizens, and there is even a society established to track Duvall's many descendants. The simple fact is that Mareen Duvall and his immediate descendants left many children, which ensures an extensive pedigree. Again, this is largely due to the luck of the draw. Historically, while wealth and status have increased the likelihood of leaving a great genetic legacy, this has not been a guarantee. The list of the rich and powerful who have no living descendants includes William Shakespeare, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, James Madison, Henry VIII, Louis XVI. And Mark Twain.

The bigger point raised by Obama's and Cheney's kinship is that two randomly selected people who have a particular racial background and live in the same country have a high chance of sharing an ancestor if you go back far enough. In fact, Ancestry.com has since revealed that Barack Obama is also related to George Washington, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, James Madison, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Rush Limbaugh. There have been lots of laughs about Barack Obama being related to Brad Pitt while Hillary Clinton is related to Angelina Jolie. Clinton is also related to Madonna, Celine Dion, and Alanis Morissette. Maybe there is a fondness for becoming a pop star in this family's genes? As the list of famous people who are related to other famous people grows, fascination fades and the underlying truth begins to materialize: we are all related.

The Pharoa Khufu, a candidate for the "youngest common ancestor" of all living people.
Source: Mark Andrew Holmes

The fact is, if you go back far enough, each of us shares a common ancestor with every other person on earth. Scientists estimate that the youngest common ancestor of all humans lived a few thousand years ago. Leave this on for a minute. There was someone, a particular man or woman, who probably lived in either Egypt or Babylonia in the Classical Period, and to whom we can all trace our ancestors

Assuming an average generation time of 20 years, this means that we are all 120 cousins ​​and descended from someone who was still alive when the pyramids already had aging structures. (Many millions of other people who lived at this time, of course, also have living descendants. The last common ancestor is simply whoever is ancestor we allin addition to our many other ancestors who are not common to all.)

Of course, within a given ethnic group, the youngest common ancestor will be much younger than this, especially in a limited geographical area with little ethnic diversity. Remember that some people randomly leave many offspring and some don't. If you take a country like Scotland, Sweden, or Poland, you don't have to go very far back to discover someone who is a common ancestor of the vast majority of citizens living there. For example in the countries of the former Mongolian Empire around 8% of the population are direct descendants of Genghis Kahn, and that goes back less than 800 years. Even in North America, around 0.5% of men carry the Y chromosome of the big boat.

Many millions of Irish Americans trace their families back to a specific county in Ireland, but the reality is that if you are Irish you are related to all other Irish people, and probably much closer than you think you are.

In fact, everyone on earth with a trace of European ancestry is likely to have a common ancestor who lived in the early Middle Ages. Charlemagne was suggested as a possible candidate.

Family trees are not correct anyway

One thing Ancestry.com doesn't often tell you is that the genealogy you discover may not be correct anyway. Inferences must be drawn when working with records that are hundreds of years old. There are many last names and first names that are quite common. There is no way to be certain that the "Jacob Carter" that appears in one record is the same "Jacob Carter" that appears in another fifteen years later, even in the same general area.

A census form with the entry "Thomas Edison" from 1880.
Source: United States Census Bureau

Then as now, there were many families out and about. An isolated census record that contains only one name is nothing more than a low-resolution snapshot. There is no way of knowing how many connections and associations that genealogy reveals are simply coincidences.

In addition, it has not been uncommon for surnames to be changed, misspelled, or misassigned over the past two centuries. Records were often lost, recreated or even falsified. We now consider our identities to be relatively fixed as we have traceable IDs, birth certificates, and social security numbers at a very young age. But none of this existed until recently.

Many families had secrets full of lies. Problems with the law or a social scandal often resulted in families moving, changing names, and making up a past. Forging records has been much easier in the past, especially when moving to another region or country.

For example, secret adoptions have been the order of the day in the western world since the Middle Ages. A pregnancy in an unmarried young woman was often "handled" by attributing the baby to another family member or even through adoption to an unrelated family. This was almost always hidden from official registers and kept in the graves as a closely guarded secret.

In addition, incorrectly attributed paternity was far more common in the past than it is today. As I wrote earlier, blood tests showed that around 5% of children born in England in the 1940s could not be the biological descendants of their fathers. Other studies have raised that number even higher. Given that wrongly attributed paternity has, on average, only a 50% chance of leading to a suspicious blood type, the actual rate was likely double the 5% reported in the newspaper.

Before the advent of DNA testing, there was no way of identifying misrepresented paternity, and it was far more common than we would like to admit in polite company. (While misrepresented paternity is now likely below 2% in the developed West, it is as high as 20% in some underdeveloped regions of the world.)

If your family tree goes back a few generations, it is almost certain that it has a mistake or two. In fact, there could be entire branches based on a lie and you would have no way of ever knowing.

Many people respond to the specter of misplaced paternity or hidden adoptions with an incredulous declaration that "it doesn't matter" and that the important trait of genealogy is family history and the connection to our past, not exact genetic relationships. I agree. Why are family trees needed to treasure our ancestors and we become obsessed with genetic relationships when we know they don't matter? Learning about the struggles and joys of past generations can resonate with all of us, regardless of who is descended from whom.

Our experience is about culture, not genes

Another problem with taking stock of our genealogy is that genetic relationships are overemphasized (or at least attempted) across social and cultural history. We draw our identity Because of our experiences, we are deeply shaped by the cultural issues of our society and the parents who raised us, regardless of where we got our chromosomes from.

If you found out that your great-grandfather was not a poor Belgian immigrant who died of influenza before his daughter was born, but a French aristocrat who seduced or even raped your great-grandmother, how would that change your self-identity? I hope it wouldn't change at all. The culture in which we grew up shapes us just like our parents. The cultural influence of our ancestors is waning with every generation. The cultural traces that your great-great-grandparents left behind have long since given way to the newer cultural milieu.

In my own family tree, almost all of my ancestors can be traced back to Germany today. However, neither I nor any of my cousins ​​speak German or remember any family members who did. We do not eat German food and we do not cultivate any German traditions. During the world wars there were even some spelling changes in our family history that served to distance the family from our German roots. When I visited Germany in 2000, I felt exactly no cultural connection. I didn't like the food. I didn't appreciate the traditions and didn't particularly bond with people. I am as German as sushi.

"Germany", mid-19th century.
Source: brick burner / WikiCommons

The term “genetic stock” is wrong anyway. What sense does it make that I am called German because some ancestors, five or more generations back, emigrated from a region of the world that is now called Germany? At that time Germany was neither a single country nor a single German culture. We don't even know the cities my various ancestors came from, but it wouldn't matter if we did.

Most Italian Americans are descendants of immigrants who came to the United States long before Italy was a unified country. Sicily and the Italian peninsula were divided into many regions, some autonomous, some parts of larger kingdoms. At that point in time, the Neapolitans would not have seen themselves as part of the same culture as the Venetians at all. They had different foods, customs, traditions and even spoke different dialects of the Italian language. When they arrived in America, they tried to establish a common "Italian" culture in order to find solidarity in a country with deep ethnic and nationalist divisions. This common Italian-American culture differs significantly from the Italian parent cultures.

When I was in Ireland I was amused by the number of times I heard Irish nationals correct American tourists claiming to be Irish. “You mean Irish American"You'd like to say. Most of us believe there's nothing more Irish on St. Patrick's Day than corned beef and cabbage, but that's it Not a tradition in Ireland.

Source: Franz Hubmann / Public Domain

Another example of the dubious nature of genetics as a mediator of cultural identity can be found in the Jewish diaspora. The small groups of Jews who made up the Levant for the most part after 1000 B.C. Abandoned, settled all over Africa, Europe and Asia. For almost all of this time, Jewish law and custom strictly forbade intermarriage. A Jew who married a Gentile would be cherem (shunned) and forced to leave the community.

However, genetic testing has shown that Jews around the world have different degrees of the different genetic fingerprints of their non-Jewish neighbors. While the genetic traces of their Levantine ancestors are known throughout world Jewry, their DNA is now a mixture of their new homeland and their ancestral ones. This demonstrates the ability of even the rare case of tolerated mixed marriage or incorrectly attributed paternity to change a people's genetics over time.

On the other hand, this also shows that genetics are a poor indicator of characterizing a culture. From the Middle Ages to the Shoah (Holocaust), few cultural identities were as clear and coherent as Judaism. The fact that genetics sometimes tell a different story does not undermine that identity. it shows that genetics are meaningless or nearly meaningless in determining who can claim a culture. Family ties are about shared culture, not genes.

Genealogy is often presented as a celebration of modern cultural diversity, particularly in the United States. If so, why does genealogy value genetics over cultural connections? Culture includes or should include all individuals regardless of race or origin, but the implicit assumption in genealogy is that only those of the exact genetic makeup are entitled to claim the inheritance. This seems to encourage racial and ethnic divisions rather than diversity.

So what is it about?

In the face of these truths: All people are related; those of a given ethnicity are even more closely related and the social context shapes our identity much more than genetics. I ask: "What's the point of researching our exact origins anyway?" The answer seems to be that a connection to our most recent ancestors compels us to study our genealogy. It is their stories that fascinate us, not their genetic makeup.

Source: Frank Leslies Illustrated Public Domain Newspaper

The ancestors lose their luster after eight or ten generations, not least because the records almost never go back any further.Even if it did, the number of ancestors would be overwhelming and we would surely stick with some of the more famous or interesting ones. We would likely share these prominent ancestors with hundreds of thousands or even millions of others. So what claim do we really have to individuality based on this ancestor?

The stories of our youngest ancestors fuel our fascination with genealogy because they give us something unique to hang our hats on, a story that belongs exclusively to our special family. You may be the only one you know who has an ancestor from a particular village in Italy. Or maybe one of your ancestors was a member of an aristocratic family who preferred love to happiness and ran away with a citizen. Perhaps your great-grandfather survived the sinking of the Titanic or fought against the Ottoman occupation of his homeland. These are the romantic stories that compel us to seek out our genealogy and be proud of everything it reveals.

Some uncomfortable realities about genealogy

The widespread fascination with genealogy has a dark side. First of all, it is a hobby that the dominant group of our racial and ethnic demographics enjoy more easily, that is, wealthy white Christians with long roots in this country. Until recently, only prominent families left a huge paper trail. The poor masses had their children in their homes unannounced in local newspapers. This means that it is easier for Europeans and white North Americans to find at least some records for parts of their family tree.

What could genealogy research reveal for many African Americans in the United States that we are not yet familiar with? Five or six generations ago, an ancestor was kidnapped, handcuffed, and transported to the United States to be sold into slavery. Nothing else was or will be known about her or him other than, possibly, the general region from which they were bought in the larger West African slave market. Then, two or three generations later, an enslaved ancestor was freed, often using the last name of his previous kidnapper. It is difficult to romanticize a genealogy with tremendous suffering.

The story is similar for Indians. While genealogical research can undoubtedly uncover stories of courageous defiance and commitment to tradition, heritage, and family at great cost, most of these stories have long been lost. All Native American family trees are full of courage, tragedy, and sadness. The genealogy process produces some encouraging stories that “belong” exclusively to some families when they should belong to all.

Many newer descendants of immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are also often excluded from the fun of genealogy. Underdeveloped regions usually have no traces of paper to be found, which encourages self-awareness that these immigrants are “other” and not part of the cultural heritage of their adopted home countries. While this may be partially inevitable, our recent obsession with genealogy could extend the marginalization of immigrants further to subsequent generations than would otherwise have been the case.

The last group to be negatively affected by the increasing popularity of genealogy are adopters. Children and adults raised by adoptive families are already more likely to not quite fit in. Having friends and neighbors researching their family tree can make it worse. The adoptees may or may not feel connected to their adoptive parents' ancestors and may or may not learn about their own biological ancestors. When they see others express their identity through their genetic ancestry, especially non-adopted family members, they may feel less connected. It might even lead them to look for their biological families, who may or may not prove fertile, and which may or may not lead to healthy experiences for them. I am not saying that it is always wrong to enjoy something that not everyone else can enjoy. However, the emphasis on genealogy as a source of identity appears to be acutely damaging at least to some adopters.

Biogeographical ancestry

Further molecular forms of the ancestral search have emerged in the meantime. Millions of people have had their DNA analyzed by 23andme, Ancestry.com, National Geographic, and more. However, there are two major problems with this. First, different companies may give very different results, and second, the whole process of mapping DNA sequences to geographic ancestors is probabilistic, not certain, and this is not always clearly presented. In some cases, the margin of error can be very large. In other words, science just isn't there, and it never could be, considering how mixed up we all actually are. Individuals and families always crossed borders and mixed up.

At best, an "ancestral report" can only tell you that something Of your ancestors probably livedsomewhere within a large and ill-defined region for maybe a couple of generations

Be proud of your ancestors

Of course, I understand why people have strong attachments to their ancestors and try to learn as much about them as possible. We are all looking for a connection to our roots, our past and things to be proud of. The downside is that we find things to feel disgraceful than a relative who has committed heinous acts or has otherwise been the subject of a scandal.

After thinking about it, none of these reactions really make sense to me. Are We Guilty of the Sins of Our Fathers? Can we honor their successes? If your great-great-grandmother was a suffragette and fought with Susan B. Anthony, this is her heroism to be proud of, not your heroism. On the other hand, if we discover that we are the descendants of some famous, heroic, or laudable person, how can we not be proud of that?

I have little doubt that if I found out that I was related to Nathaniel Hawthorn or Frederick Douglas, I would work it into every conversation I could. In fact, my grandmother believed she was related to William Jennings Bryan. I took pride in telling people about it until I saw Inherit the Wind and read about Bryan's role in the Scopes trial. I rarely boast of this possible relationship anymore. I am confused myself by my own reaction to genealogy.

Source: US Library of Congress

Two stories help me put this puzzle center stage.

On the first episode of Genealogy Roadshow, a woman sought help from professional genealogists to confirm or disprove folklore that her family was related to the outlaw Jesse James. Before revealing the answer, the genealogist gave an overview of Jesse James 'many crimes, most of which revolved around James' staunch support for the Confederate cause of slavery and secession. James killed many innocent civilians during and after the Civil War through terrorism, lynching, and large-scale massacres. The future relative of this vile man nodded in agreement as the terrible crimes were read. When the genealogist revealed that she was indeed related to Jesse James, the woman cheered with excitement and pumped her fist. The genealogist, an African American, just smiled and didn't seem moved to attend the celebration.

Another story is one of my own. I was once in a conversation about family history with an African American friend of mine. I mentioned that I had several ancestors who fought for the union during the Civil War and several others who were active in the Republican Party in Sangamon County, Illinois. The GOP was the anti-slavery party at the time, and Sangamon County was where a young Abraham Lincoln started. My friend, on the other hand, is a light-skinned African American whose two parents are also light-skinned. Legend on both sides of his family has it that an ancestor was the most popular, albeit unwilling, slave of a white slave owner, a phenomenon that was by no means unusual.

At one point my friend said to me, "So wait, that means you are descended from abolitionists and I descended from slave owners ?!"

Does that mean he should share some of the shame of slavery transmitted through his genes, while I should be self-righteous after inheriting the title of "abolitionist"? Of course not. But what does it say?

Confession: I have an attachment to my genealogy

My great-grandparents Frank and Caroline Schiene, 1906

Now I have to come clean and admit that I enjoyed keeping up with my relatives' efforts to track down our family tree. I have pictures on my bedroom wall of ancestors that I have never met, but whose stories I tell. It is natural and tempting to delve into the stories of our past. I don't think anyone should feel guilty while enjoying their genealogy.

In addition, shows like the Genealogy Roadshow, hosted by a well-known genealogist specializing in African American genealogy, have gone to great lengths to show that the family histories of African American, Native American, and Latin American can be as rich and interesting as that of whites who until recently were the focus of the occasional genealogy.

I do not mean this post as a condemnation of the pursuit of genealogy. Our history is very important to us and has shaped us in countless, unrecognizable ways. It is important that we as a people know our history. I just think it's good to keep the limits of genealogy in mind and keep its value in context.

In ancient times, there were many heroes and villains who influenced our world in many ways. There were also countless ordinary people who are now nameless and did nothing but fight to get through and take care of their families. The worldly struggles of our ancestors gave us a future. It is definitely worth celebrating.

Is it really necessary to know who is descended from whom in order to celebrate our past? The history of our culture is written in the sometimes banal, sometimes heroic stories of our families. The stories are important and belong to all of us.

Perhaps our particular lineage should not be called a family tree, as it is not a stand-alone structure with its own roots. Rather, it's just a branch, not too different from the others, on the larger tree of the one human family.