The Washerwoman’s Genes

September 29, 2006

Overwhelming Numbers

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 9:32 am

When you go up and down the generations—mathematically—you realize that each of us has an impossible number of forebears, and that our furthest back ancestor likewise has an impossible plenitude of heirs. I’ve seen several charts and discussions of this recently.

Generations multiply geometrically: the progression starts out slow, but then escalates like a rocket. Any pair of parents in ancient times, even those having a modest family, should have a numerical set of descendents that out-sizes the actual number of people who have ever lived on the planet. And any person today regressing her ancestry backwards likewise discovers that, mathematically at least, she is descended from everyone who ever lived. As you regress back, you reach a point where the number of ancestors is greater than the cumulative population of humans over the ages. In fact, you learn that some of your ancestors must be repeaters, and that we are all “inbred.”

Another consequence is that everyone must have both royal and peasant blood, since we are all descended from everyone. This doesn’t make “common sense,” but mathematically it is valid.

I bring this up because I am learning so much about the phenomenon of ancestry—and having so many new considerations and insights and questions—that I can hardly keep up. The mere thought of working your way back to even a generation of 64 ancestors makes you want to lie down. Sometimes I can’t even begin to write, because my impressions are roaring around me like a crowd at Penn Station. And darn if strangers all over the waiting room aren’t trying to get my attention!

I recently attended workshops on British Isles and Irish genealogy, learning about whole new sets of records and archival parameters and a geography and history that I didn’t know beyond the barest outlines. The Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania (GSP) put together an all-day workshop on the British Isles with another local society. Not only was it informative, there were door prizes, and I won a voucher for 50 units of time on a British online archive. That helped me break into British research, although I’m not sure I found anything significant. But the timing was right: I had just learned the names of my great-grandfather Walter’s British parents, William and Keshia.

Genealogy is arm-chair time travel, but it jaunts you around the globe as well.


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