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Genealogy as normally practised gives us a very misleading view of our genetic heritage. This article was originally presented at the 2005 Skeptics Conference in Rotorua.
Over recent years, there has been a huge surge of interest in tracing family genealogies. Genealogy has always been important for Maori, but pakeha New Zealanders seem to have come to it more recently. For many New Zealanders of European ancestry, there is a fascination in learning about our roots in the old world, and in discovering what caused our forebears to uproot themselves and come to the other side of the globe.
I imagine that most people reading this have found themselves involved at some level in a family genealogical search. I certainly have, and this has caused me to give a lot of thought to what it all really means, and what it tells me about myself.
Alas, I suspect that in some cases, the underlying motivation for tracing genealogy could be the hope of unearthing a famous ancestor, or a rich maiden great-aunt with a fortune looking for a home. I have seen several examples where New Zealand families have paid many thousands of dollars to have their genealogy researched by the appropriate authorities in Britain. In each case, the pattern of the resulting family tree has been similar. The family line was traced back several generations to a male ancestor in the 19th Century, then a single dotted line projected back hypothetically several centuries to a male of the same or similar surname with some claim to fame or prestige, with no evidence of an actual relationship. For example, one discovered a supposed ancestor who was Lord Mayor of London, while another claimed that the current family descended from a noble in Cromwell’s court with a name that was only vaguely similar.
I am not knocking genealogy. Personally, I am interested to increase my abysmal knowledge of where my various grandparents and great-grandparents originated, and how and why they came to New Zealand. However, the more that I get involved, the more I have become sceptical about the traditional approach to genealogy. I have come to the conclusion that genealogy as often practised is a very artificial and largely meaningless construct driven by ancient religious tradition and a huge historical gender bias.
My interest was first piqued a few years ago when I read an account of the lives of Nicholas and Alexandra, the last Tsar and Tsarina of Russia. Nicholas was the last Tsar of the Romanov dynasty, which had ruled Russia for some 300 years. For the Romanovs, the tradition was that the eldest son and heir would be found a suitable bride among the royal houses of Europe, and this continued through the generations. This meant that the Russian Romanov blood was diluted 50% at each generation. Someone calculated that, as a result, the last Tsar, the supreme ruler of Russia, had only 1/128 Russian blood. Of course, with the amount of interbreeding that occurred among the royal families of Europe, this was probably not strictly accurate. Nevertheless, it makes the point that, because of the historical tradition of a male-dominated patrilineal society and a corresponding lack of recognition of the female contribution, our view of heredity can be very skewed. While I am sure that some Russians were conscious that their ruler was not totally Russian, I imagine that the Tsar was not promoted as being “99% Russia-free.”
Surnames are irrelevant
The normal way people research their genealogy is to trace one surname back through the centuries, which of course means following the male line. There are many internet sites devoted to tracing a particular family line. I find this approach to genealogy to be rather pointless and artificial. The fact that we carry a particular surname has little relevance in genetic or historical terms, nor do I find that it means much at a personal interest level. We are all in fact the product of an almost infinite mixing of genes. Probably the easiest way to demonstrate the point is to use my own genealogy back to my great-grandparents’ generation as an example.
If I construct a conventional “top-down” Garratt family tree with the apex as my great-grandfather George Garratt and his wife Jane (nee Higbed), I find that at my generation I have eight first cousins, none named Garratt, and a multitude of second cousins. Some of those have the Garratt surname. However, the only common relatives I have with those Garratt second cousins are great-grandparents George and Jane. I share none of my other six great-grandparents with them.
If I work in the opposite direction and trace my background as far back as my eight great-grandparents, it becomes apparent that while my name is Garratt, I am equally a Higbed, a Dunne, a Sears, a Woodley, an Ayers, a Waghorne, and a Turner. I would like to find out more about each of these lines, and how they came to be in New Zealand. Interestingly, I have found that it is much harder to trace the backgrounds of my female great-grandparents than those of the males. Even enquiries to elderly aunts tend to bring blank stares when I ask about their mothers’ backgrounds. I presume that this is because in those earlier generations the wives’ identities were considered to be subsumed in that of their husbands.
Personally, I find there is little point in trying to track back further than my great-grandparents, as any meaningful relationship of those historical people to myself becomes very tenuous. If we go a few generations further back, the numbers increase exponentially to the point that I realise that I am actually the mix of a huge number of unknown people.
Whatever our individual religious beliefs, there can be no doubting that many of our societal values and traditions are driven by biblical and Christian heritage. In our Christian-based society, the gender-biased view of heredity that virtually ignores the contribution of women to the mix is very ancient. If we go back to the Adam and Eve story in Genesis, we learn that they had sons Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel, then went out and took a wife, but there is no mention of who she was and where she came from. The most common explanation in Christian circles is that she was his sister, but that this creates no moral problem because God had not at that stage declared incest to be a sin. However, this begs the question of why Genesis chooses to completely omit any reference to female children of Adam and Eve. Whoever Cain’s wife was, she was clearly heroically prolific, because Cain’s next recorded move was to build a city.
According to the Bible story, at 130 years old Adam and Eve had another son called Seth. From that point, the genealogy of Adam and Eve’s descendants through Seth are recorded through dozens of generations of males begat by males, with very little reference to who they were all doing the begetting with. Eventually, we reach Noah, who (after living 500 years) had three sons. Presumably, in the course of 500 years he also had some daughters. However, there is no mention of them. In any case, they were dead out of luck. It was only Noah and his wife (unnamed), his sons and their wives (also unnamed) that got tickets for places in the Ark.
After the flood, human history was nearly back to square one, as it was now up to Noah’s sons and their wives to start the system going again. They and succeeding generations all produced prolific numbers of sons, but no recorded daughters. If in fact the successive male generations had managed to keep the lineage going without the help of females, this would have been a miracle that would overshadow the virgin birth.
Following the flood, the Bible’s genealogy then follows the male descendants of Noah’s son Shem through many generations, eventually reaching Abraham.
A small theological problem
We can now skip a few thousand years to where we find an account of 14 generations from Abraham to King David, again all through begettings by male descendants with little recorded help from any females. Then there are another 27 or 28 begettings to reach Joseph then on to Jesus, who, apparently on the basis of this genealogy, is referred to throughout the remainder of the New Testament as the son of David. This seems to be contradictory, as the New Testament gospels make it clear that Joseph was not the father of Jesus.
Without entering into the theological argument about this, it does provide an illustration of a major paradox in the tradition of tracing genealogy and descent through the male line. Motherhood is certain, fatherhood is not. It is naïve to believe that all those dozens or hundreds of generations from Adam to Jesus traces a true bloodline in times when contraception was not available.
We can now jump forward another two thousand years to the gospel according to Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code. This is based on the theory put forward in the earlier book Holy Blood, Holy Grail – that Mary Magdalene was pregnant at the time of the crucifixion, fled to France, gave birth to the child, who then bred with local kings. The suggestion is that there are direct descendants of Christ still alive, and that it is the holy bloodline that is the mystical Holy Grail. It is assumed that if this is proven true, it will somehow destroy the Roman Catholic church, although I cannot quite understand how. Supposedly, the church is in mortal fear that Christ’s descendants will lay claim to the church.
If this is true, I find it is interesting to do some mathematics. If we assume that in the intervening 2000 years, there has been an average of four generations each century, then there have been 80 generations since that time. If we ignore the effects of possible intermarriage among the holy descendants, we find that the bloodline dilution is so great that if there are in fact current direct descendants of Christ, there is statistically little chance that their blood will contain one holy corpuscle. (It may be that they have all become homeopaths.)
The great genetic pyramid scheme
Even more interesting is to try to estimate how many current direct descendants of Christ there may be to lay claim to the church. As we are in the 21st Century, it is important that we take a politically correct gender-neutral and age-neutral approach by including direct descendants through all siblings of both sexes at each generation. I have to confess that when I tried to do this, the mathematics quickly got out of hand. If we assume that all marriages are to people outside the family, we soon get into the pyramid scheme trap, where there are simply not enough people around to provide a pool of new recruits. My calculations show that, without interbreeding, Christ’s direct descendants would by now be sufficient to populate the galaxy, not just this world. Suffice to say that, on this basis, by about 400AD Christ’s direct descendants outnumbered the entire population of France at that time.
Now, this is of course all theoretical nonsense which ignores the reality of intermarriage within the extended family. However, after 2000 years, if the Holy Blood/Holy Grail theory is correct, there must be many millions of people out there with an equal right to claim direct lineage from Christ and to inherit the church. In fact, it is certain that many skeptics are included. Are you ready to claim your share of the Vatican treasury?
In the television series, The History of Britain, there was often reference to the exploits of some British nobleman of 500 or 1000 years ago. The presenter would then interview the current holder of the title, being the current eldest son of the family. The first reaction was to think “Wow, isn’t it amazing that he is the current incarnation of that long-lost notable.” However, on brief reflection I realised that any surviving blood link after all those generations was virtually zero, if one takes into account the genetic contributions of the wives down the centuries. The chances of a surviving genetic link reduce even further unless one assumes that the successive generations of wives were all faithful to their lords, and did not produce the eldest son by a dalliance with a passing knight or a gamekeeper called Mellors. It is probably fair to assume that a large proportion of the hereditary peers sitting in the House of Lords have no blood connection with the original holder of the title.
For that current nobleman, his view of say 500 years of genealogy is that he is the authentic carrier of the aristocratic bloodline (and the land, money, prestige and title). My view of my genealogy over the last 500 years is quite different. If I look back 500 years, mathematics tell me there were hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of people back then who are equally my direct ancestors. I know that I can never trace them, but that does not change the reality. I console myself by believing that among all those ancestors, there must have been some of fame or notoriety.
We’re all related
Looking at genealogy this way raises another interesting point. My eight great-grandparents all either emigrated to New Zealand or were born here. A large proportion of living New Zealanders also had forebears resident in New Zealand at that time, say the mid to late 19th Century. Let us assume conservatively that there are a million fourth and fifth generation New Zealanders who could identify eight ancestors living in New Zealand in 1870. (This does not seem unreasonable, given that the fifth generation group would only need to have had one half of their 16 great-great grandparents in New Zealand.) This gives us a theoretical eight million ancestors at a time when the total population of New Zealand was around 250,000. This means of course that there is a very high incidence of sharing of ancestors of that period. As a result, there is a very high chance that any two New Zealanders are related at some level. This of course provides an explanation of apparent coincidences in discovering relatives.
One may ask whether all this has any importance. Personally, I find my approach to genealogy to be more meaningful in helping me to understand who I am and how I came to be here. Also, I believe that it is more valuable than the traditional approach in helping to understand our genetic makeup, for example in tracing and understanding hereditary conditions.
However, I think that there is a deeper issue. New Zealand has always been at the forefront of the fight to ensure gender equality. However, the notion that wives are mere child-producing chattels and housekeepers for their husbands dies hard in some sectors of New Zealand society. We live in a country where it is still possible to produce an aspiring male Prime Minister with archaic attitudes to the role and place of women. The traditional approach to genealogy serves to reinforce historical attitudes about the subservience and assumed unimportance of women that have no place in the 21st Century.