Warning: family trees may be larger than they appear
A while back my daughter Ava went on Ancestry.com to trace our family tree. It was pretty cool because instead of having to comb through obscure court records in some dusty registry office like, say, my great-grandfather Emil Galko of Vienna, Austria, would have had to do, the site combined what other people had already discovered and automatically filled in several generations. Ours went back to about the 1700s, I think.
I say “I think” because after a certain point, I didn’t much care. I’m all in when it comes to wondering about my parents and grandparents, of course, and even a few levels of great-grands, but after that? I was kinda, “meh.” Ava felt pretty much the same. Today I asked her what she remembered about our tree and she mumbled something about Irish people. That’s fine with me. I want my kids to have a certain amount of familial pride, but not too much. It’s tricky. Saying “You’re so organized – just like the Hartmans” seems fine. Giving them the idea that they’re special because Charlemagne’s a relative or they’re “white” or whatever is too much. When we get overly attached to the idea of “our” people, we miss out on the fact that everyone, really, is “our” people.
During the past election cycle, I stumbled onto some pretty dark places on Facebook and found people’s profiles prominently showing off results of DNA tests purporting to show their “pure” heritage. Not only is this completely jerky (no amount of supposedly stellar lineage negates the fact that they’re the kind of person who thinks this is important), but it’s also based on completely iffy science.
DNA testing is great for close generational testing, like determining paternity, but the farther back you go, the shakier it gets. Within a couple of hundred years, you have more ancestors than DNA sections, so whole swaths of relatives don’t show up.
“On a long trudge through history – two parents, four grandparents, and so on – very soon everyone runs out of ancestors and has to share them,” says Steve Jones, emeritus professor of human genetics at University College London in a study that found these tests to be “so unreliable and inaccurate that they amount to ‘genetic astrology.’ ”
It’s not that family ties don’t matter. They do. It’s just that math complicates things. Family trees expand exponentially. Each kid has two parents, and each of those parents has two parents, doubling with each generation until there is a nearly meaningless tangle of branches branching off endlessly into yet more branches. If I happen to find Alexander Hamilton on one of those branches, that’s great. And yet, for every line followed, three others are missed, maybe one with a great African healer or a super cool Chinese matriarch or maybe just the town drunk in a small French village.
Familial love is tight, but made ephemeral by time. I couldn’t love my children more, and they love me back. Whether I’m around or not, their kids will likely know about me. But their kids’ kids’ kids will have no idea who I am. I’ll be another name on the family tree generated by whatever future microchip implant Ancestry.com has mutated into. It’s decent fodder for an existential crisis, but it’s the natural way of things. Otherwise it gets too overwhelming.
Writer A.J. Jacobs found nearly 75 million relatives on Geni, a sprawling crowdsourced “World Family Tree.” (Geni’s data are only as good as the information that people feed into it, but that’s always been an issue regardless of whether computers are involved. My grandfather, a self-taught eccentric genius type who liked to nurse grudges, put himself in charge of the Beckwith family tree. In the legend on his possibly accurate tree – he was not horribly beholden to absolute truth – there was a V symbol along with the usual Ms and Fs. V stood for “villain.” He gave his sister Helen the V.)
Anyway, Jacobs went about as far as you can go with his own genealogy and, in the process, found both the absurdity and beauty of family trees. “There’s a good chance you’re on some far-flung branch of my tree, and if you aren’t, you probably will be soon,” wrote Jacobs in The New York Times. “It’s not really my tree. It’s our tree.”
I love that. “Our tree.” If we can get it through our heads that we really are all part of one big family tree, maybe we won’t need to waste so much time being mad at/suspicious of the “others.”
As much as those folks on Facebook don’t want to admit it, there’s really no such thing as “ethnic purity.” We’re all kind of mutts. And as much as I don’t want to admit it, those racist folks on Facebook are – sigh – probably my relatives too. So as a show of good faith, even though I really, really want to, I won’t check to see if Ancestry.com has a little V symbol I can put by their names.