Monday, October 18, 2010

Why Genealogy is Bunk

Your " family tree"  has very little to do with who you are or how your life will turn out.  At best, Genealogy is a harmless, yet boring hobby.  At worst, it is a cover for racism and elitism.

In an article in Smithsonian Magazine, Richard Conniff created quite a controversy by saying the obvious - Genealogy is Bunk.  (Conniff, Richard, Genealogy is Bunk Smithsonian Magazine. July 2007).  The response to this article was amazing, and even to this day, self-styled genealogists are vehemently up in arms against Conniff.

Was Conniff right?  Well, of course he was.  He merely pointed out the obvious, which is often over-looked by self-styled amateur (and they are all amateur) "Genealogists".   Simply stated, for every generation n you go back, the number of ancestors increases by a factor of 2^n  or 2 to the nth power.  You have two biological parents (2^1), four grandparents (2^2), eight great-grandparents (2^3), 16 great-great grandparents (2^4) and so on.  Go back more than ten generations and you are talking 1024 great-great-great-great (etc.) grand-parents to chose from.  Add those into all the intermediary "grands" and "great-grands" and you have a total T = 1024 + 512 + 256 + 128 + 64.....+ 2 = 2046 ancestors.

That's a lot of people to research.  And for the most part, most of these people are going to be strangers - little more than a tintype, a faded photo, a birth date and a death date on a family bible, a tombstone, or a registry in a church somewhere.  Who they are and what they did, oftentimes is lost to history.

I recently uncovered a mountain of genealogy materials from my Grandfather's family.  Platt Kissam Wiggins was an attorney and later Mayor of Larchmont, New York.  I have posted a letter of his on this blog.  That letter illustrates his wry sense of humor.  That, and the fact that I knew him during his lifetime, makes his story interesting.

But as for his parents, and parent's parents, I know less and less, to the point where the lineage sort of peters out.  Names, some photos or tintypes, birth and death dates.  Interesting to look at for about 5 seconds.  But what?  I could grab a piece of clip-art off the Internet and attach a date to it and pretend it was my great-great-great-great Grandfather, and it would have the similar effect - a face shot, a name, some dates, little more.  Without the history of the person involved, what is the point?

Similarly, baby pictures from 1910 are sort of pointless.  They all look alike.  A baby picture of Grandpa looks like any baby picture anywhere.  I should keep this because - what?  Even from a genealogy point of view, it is pointless.

One of the more interesting things in this treasure trove (and the reason for its existence) was an application to join the "Sons of the Revolution" or some such organization, which required that you trace your lineage back to Jolly Olde England.  My great Grandmother, Julia Barker Wiggins, did just that - by selectively pruning the family tree.  You see, her grandmother was a DuBois, a Huguenot, whose ancestors were refugees from the French Catholicism.  No profit in mining that branch of the family - at least for English Ancestors.

So she selected another branch - the Platts, who went back through another branch and then another and suddenly, voila!  You have Charlemagne.

Well, at least that is the way it was in theory.  Whether some of the "research" was fudged, I do not know.  All I do know is, the "genealogical research" was focused on one thing - and that was to get her son Platt into this society based on pedigree.  She wanted her son to succeed in life and become important and be accepted by "good society" - which back then meant you had to show you came from "good stock" or an "old family".
No Johnny-come-lately Scotch-Irish white trash immigrants, please!  So my Dad's family was out of luck from the the get-go.

So we come to the first fallacy of genealogy - pruning the family tree:  Every self-appointed "genealogist" prunes their family tree to exclude members they find uninteresting.  Often people trace paternal links, while ignoring maternal ones.  So you might trace back the Smith name 10 generations, but ignore the families of all the Smith wives.  What is the point in that?   People also "prune" out lines when they want to find certain links - as my Great Grandmother did, jumping from the Wiggins line to the Platt line, etc. to find the right link she wanted to the past.

And why did Great Grandmother Wiggins do this?  To overcompensate, to some extent.  Her ancestors, as well as those of her husband, were hardly rich landowners or part of the social set of the 1900's.  They were not "good society" as deemed by the social register of the time.  Her husband had in fact killed himself, which brought additional shame to the family name.

She was going to redeem herself through this specious genealogy, which would allow her son to become accepted into "society" of the day.

Back then, stuff like that was important.  But today, judging and valuing human beings like breeds of dogs is viewed as repugnant.  And of course, the main point of most of these "societies" such as the Mayflower Moms or the Sons of the Revolution or whatever, was basically to keep out the Catholics and Jews.  Bear in mind that anti-Catholic feelings were very high back in the 1800's - as reported in the Smithsonian recently, the Bible riots of that era resulted in Catholics being lynched.  The fear of papistry was palpable to many upper-class Protestants.

The second fallacy of genealogy is that is it is not loaded with the baggage of racism, antisemitism, and elitism.  But of course, it actually is.  It is, frankly, un-American.  The ideas of the gilded age - that a man should marry a woman from "good stock" or an "old family" are obsolete and quaint today.  Today, we call that inbreeding, and it is practiced no longer on Park Avenue, but in West Virginia.

The idea that you should be admitted to a college or school, or get a job advancement, because your great-great grandfather on your Mother's side was famous, is somewhat un-American, in that it promotes a quasi-aristocracy in a land where people are to be judged on their merit.

For descendants of slaves, genealogy is particularly problematic.   While some African-Americans enjoy this hobby, usually there is a brick wall in the family tree, from when their ancestors came over from Africa.  Records before then are often lost, and many slave owners did not keep careful records of who was descended from whom.  And often it is a painful reminder of a painful past.

The fact that I can trace my ancestry back to slave-owners is hardly an accomplishment.  And in a way, it is sort of embarrassing.

And for orphans or the adopted, who may not be able to trace their family tree, bragging about your ancestry may also be hurtful.  As it turns out, of course, your ancestry is unimportant in the greater scheme of things - we are not breeds of dogs.  But placing emphasis on this can be hurtful to others.

The third fallacy about genealogy is the idea that somehow, by researching these people who are your ancestors, you can somehow figure out who you are.  I think this is pointless naval-gazing, and to some extent like horoscopes, self-fulfilling prophesies.  You can look at a family tree and say "Look, Great Grandma Smith was an artist!  That must be where I get my artistic abilities from!"  But you could just as easily say, "Great Grandfather Jones was an Engineer!  That must be where I get my Engineering skills from!"  The truth is, you don't "get" your genes from someone else - or your skills, interests, and predispositions - these are your own.  You can think you are "finding" your roots in this nonsense, but in fact, you are merely looking for indicia of traits you may have - while pointedly ignoring traits that you do not have.  It is like finding the face of Jesus in a taco.  If you want to find it, you will find it.  But it is a construct of your mind, not some grand master plan.

The fourth fallacy of genealogy, is that your family tree is unique.  As Conniff pointed out, we are all basically related, if you follow these "trees" back far enough.  If you follow your family tree back far enough, it branches out very wide.  And everyone else's tree branches out wide as well.  In fact, they inter-twine with the branches of your "tree".  In fact, it is not so much a tree as a hedge - or some giant conglomeration of connections and interconnections.  The "tree" approach neglects these interactions - the fact that while you trace your ancestry back 5 or 10 generations, you may in fact be tracing back to the same ancestors as someone on the other side of the planet.  You are "related" as distant cousins.  In fact we all are.

Genealogy, and the "family tree" imply that somehow, each one of us is "special" and comes from their own "family" - when in fact, we are all pretty ordinary and come from the same family.  In fact, there is no "family" you can call your own entirely - it is also claimed by any number of distant cousins, relatives, and total strangers.  There is no "tree" period, only an interwoven shrub, crawling with kudzu.

The fifth fallacy of genealogy is the idea that genetically we are all somehow different.  Actually, we are all pretty much the same.  While some genetic diseases may be passed down from parent to child, much of the rest of our DNA is either pretty much the same as everyone else's or is a randomization of a number of different elements.  The idea that you can identify a "Smith" gene that is somehow different from a "Jones" gene is absolute bunk.  And chances are, the Smiths and the Jones' probably intermarried sometime in your not-so-recent past anyway.

Think about it.  If your genes were so closely tied in to your parents, then you and your siblings should all be identically the same.  And yet we are not -  because every sperm cell and every egg has a variation in DNA which makes us all different and unique.   Unless you are identical twins, you are going to be different that your siblings - and different than your parents.  And even among identical twins, there is always variation.  Your experiences also color who you are to a large extent.  Your brain is a neural network that is reprogrammed by your environment - not locked in place by what some ancestor did.   Your genetic makeup is only a small part of who you are - and for the most part, your genetic makeup is just like everyone else's.

Human beings share an enormous amount of DNA with one another.  And we share an enormous amount of DNA with other creatures on this planet - even plants.  We are all made in the same machine, it turns out.  So looking for minor variations in your family as indicia of some greater truth is, I think, a falsehood.

The sixth fallacy of genealogy is that it is interesting.  Now, this is all very well and fine, you say, but it is merely a harmless hobby!  That may be true, but it is also a stupefyingly boring hobby whose prime fans are bored middle-aged ladies with a lot of time on their hands.  Go on any genealogy website and be prepared for a good snooze.  Many people obsess about genealogy, but all they collect are little more than birth dates and death dates and names - mere boxes to fill in on the family tree.  What does it really mean?  A name, a number, a connection.  As valuable data - indicative of anything - it leaves a lot to be desired.

It is merely hoarding useless information that is of no practical use to anyone on the planet, now or anytime in the future.  It provides the appearance of being important, by providing a set of rules and constructs in harvesting the data.   And when you find information that fills in your "tree" it may seem like you are acquiring useful information.

But in reality, it is nothing more than collecting data for the sake of collecting data - like writing down a list of the average temperature every July 7th in Borneo for the last 50 years. Yes, you can look up and research that information and create your own "July 7th Borneo temperature chart".  But as an indicator of anything, it is just data - with no correlation or use.  It is random data masquerading as purposeful data.  Just because there is a systematic means of harvesting it does not make it non-random or useful.

In a way, it is like spelunking Facebook pages.  I can go on a friend's page and look at that, and from that look at their friend's pages - and then friends of friends, and then friends of friends of friends, and so on.  But the pages all look largely alike, and the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend is about as relevant to me as a Great-great-great Grandfather.  In other words, they are strangers, but for some "six degrees of separation" kind of link.

You could create a family tree that would be just as relevant, in a lot less time, by simply making up names and dates, once you get past your Grandparents' generation.  Let's see, Grandma Barker's grandfather father was Mr. Magoo, and he was born on July 8, 1842.  Sounds plausible.  And look how much time I just saved!  And it fills in one of those boxes.  Names and dates are really meaningless and are not any indicia of who the ancestor was and what they thought, dreamt, or did.

Maybe we should just leave the dead to molder in their graves and leave them in peace, rather than try to link them to our present.  And perhaps it is more constructive to live in the present than to try to hang on to some long-lost past we never even lived in or knew about.  You want to read history?  Read a history book.  But don't kid yourself that just because you had an ancestor at Gettysburg, you somehow have a deeper understanding of the Civil War.  Or worse yet, "Rebel Pride".

Genealogy is literally a dead-end.  People who are enthusiasts of this "hobby" are often introspective people, who are more obsessed with tracking down a long-lost relative than in living their own life.  Introspection and living-in-the-past are not a good thing.  Trying to enhance your own life by claiming to be a "direct descendant" from a famous person, four generations removed, is specious self-deception at best.  Unless they left you the family fortune, it means little or nothing about you as a person.  You are no better or worse than anyone else, because of who you are descended from.

Genealogy is bunk, period.