The Washerwoman’s Genes

August 28, 2007

Blind as a Genealogist

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 10:11 am

Part I

Consider myopia: a handicap, to be sure, but really, as handicaps go, minor, almost, these days, not worth speaking of. And a good thing, too, since it is decidedly inheritable. But how would it have played in a pre-modern society, one without contacts or lasik surgery or even those coke-bottle-thick corrective lenses? Perhaps, before reading was the norm and education a necessity, weak eyesight wouldn’t have mattered that much.

If you’re nodding, it’s probably because you see 20/20. If you’ve been nearsighted since the beginning of time, you know better.

A kid who can’t see far wouldn’t do too well in hunter or warrior school. Likewise, the blurry-sighted one would make a mess around the cook-fire, or possibly get grilled by mistake. Collect firewood? Pick those little-itty-bitty berries? Carve a bowl? Make a spear? Know when the clouds say rain? Walk across an open field without tripping? Hmmm. Just how useless is this person?

How did such a klutz ever survive before the modern era—let alone find someone willing to get it on with him (or her)? I’m proof that some did.

Compensation must have been the name of the game, and nearsighted ancestors must have been masters of the work-around.

Consider: maybe with good hearing and smell, fine-tuned sensory and somatic awareness, intelligence, and the certain personality, you could balance out the deficits of poor vision. With cooperativeness, diligence, and probably a strain of obedience, you could fit into the community. You’d handle domestic tasks, develop a craft perhaps (one that doesn’t involve fire or knives.) You’d stick close to home, to areas where you know the terrain and won’t be tripped up. You’d tend to be an outsider in groups, not easily able to socialize across a room or get a feel for a stranger whose face is a blur. Leadership would be out of the question. You would depend somewhat on the good will of others to leave you in peace and let you contribute what you can, or to help you in travel or crisis. Only your family and your close friends would get to know you—your face to the outside world would be cautious, retiring, reticent, even passive. There might be shame, too, in being a person strong of body and mind who nevertheless has to skulk around like a weakling, who has to live in a state of self-suppression.

On the other hand, a myopian who doesn’t lay low could be in for four ways of trouble. If your productivity is limited by your weak sight, and you are also obstreperous, belligerent, defiant, or uncooperative, you might draw some negative attitudes, to say the least. If you were a risk-lover, bold and brash and unrestrained, you might blunder over a cliff or quickly get clobbered in a fight.

The circumstances of living in a pre-modern society might quickly cull the loud, pushy, assertive nearsighted person, while the quiet, restrained, sensitive, and fast-thinking one would have the right survival skills to get by. And subsequent generations of near-sighted descendents would survive the same way, reinforcing a personality that wouldn’t normally smell like success.

It’s a stereotype: the quiet near-sighted kid hiding behind a book. Looked out from an evolutionary viewpoint, though, the pairing of nearsightedness with a docile, detail-oriented personality created a path for survival. The personality and the eyeballs run in my dad’s family. Is it too much to assume these genetic factors must have been in play in the lives of our forebears in that line? The personality, of course, could be considered anachronistic today when we see as well as anyone else. In my family, the current generation is breaking out of the ancient turtle shell: getting advanced degrees, working as professionals, taking on leadership.

I may never know, of course, which of my ancestors were near-sighted and down which exact line the trait and its associated quirks of personality passed. But pass it did.

Part II

In a recent essay published in The New Republic, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker pokes some serious holes in the biological basis for genealogical research. Although by my reading (and despite the article’s genealogy-bashing title), Pinker is mainly concerned with the way kinship longings are being manipulated by political and religious ideologies world-wide, along the way he hits the foundations of ancestor research pretty hard. He particularly debunks the value of using DNA to learn about forebears.

As has been noted in other sources recently, when we look backwards toward distant generations, the number of our ancestors increases exponentially—and, Pinker notes, the amount of genetic material we can say we have from any specific person decreases exponentially. While we have half our genes from our father and half from our mother, we can only say we have one-quarter of our genes from our grandparents, one-eighth from our great-grandparents, one-sixteenth from our great-great-grandparents, and so on. One sixteenth is about 6%; one thirty-second about 3%, one sixty-fourth is less than 1%. Pinker refers to this as “geometric decay of relatedness.”

Pinker’s conclusion is a rebuke to the genealogical obsession: “Outside a small family circle, the links of kinship are biologically trifling. . . .”

Barring intermarriage within the family, which ties generations more closely together, our relatedness to any one blood relative beyond those we can know personally is mostly fantasy. And our tracing of relationships through DNA gives us not just a severe minority report of our ancestry, but one that is arbitrary. Current methods of DNA analysis are constrained to two genetic lines; there’s currently no way to sift out the rest. Two lines out of four is not many, but as you go backward generationally, your mtDNA and Y-descent lines become two of four, of eight, of thirty-two, of two-hundred-fifty-six.

Will Pinker’s analysis cause genealogy to implode like the housing market, an overvalued commodity shrinking down to a junk investment?

Genealogists are, after all, a technically minded, even scientifically oriented breed. Despite the “batty little old lady” image, most are analytical and intellectual; among those I’ve met, many are retired or still-active scientists, teachers, librarians, and so on. If you read The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record or The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, you’ll see just how academic the field can be.

In other words, genealogists should by nature attend to what Pinker has to say: the very premises underlying your endeavors are scientifically faulty. Though you prize discovering the names and vital records of far-back generations, each time you do so, you halve the genetic influence the person has on you, to the point of triviality.

So, get a life, you genealogist, you.

In fact, if Pinker is correct, our ancestral connectedness is an intuition and not a reality, and our travails more like a spiritual quest. In that sense, it doesn’t matter, he suggests, whom we uncover as our ancestors: we’ll continue to feel, he says, as Oprah did after she learned her DNA analysis showed she was not Zulu but Kpelle, “empowered” by the news.

There actually are a few family researchers who think their ancestors speak to them or guide their labors, but most are far more literal-minded about the process and goals of their investigations. Yet, confronted with the mathematical facts of how minimally any one ancestor’s genes affect a living person, genealogists, I’m pretty sure, will keep on keeping on.

It’s not just stubbornness.

It’s just likely that there is more to genetic inheritance than has been yet discovered. Pinker himself invokes the unexpected developments that often come about after a technological breakthrough: would Faraday have ever anticipated the electric guitar? Likewise, I would add, sometimes progress reverses scientific dogma. Ulcers are not caused by stress, but by a bacterium. Heart disease has an inflammatory component. And this week there is a report undermining science’s understanding of obesity: a virus can cause the stem cells present everywhere in our bodies to create fat.

So, is genealogy is more like a religion than a science? Is it an unfounded system of belief? Pinker seemingly closes the book on that question, but by my thinking, the connection between our ancestors and our identity today deserves, and it will have, more exploration.

Pinker, Steven. “Strangled by Roots: The Genealogy Craze in America” The New Republic, 6 Aug 2007, 30 July 2007.



  1. We are influenced by more then just the genetics of our ancestors. Their descisions, cultures, religions, education, point of view, lifestyle, climate, physical environment all shaped who they became, and what they passed down to their children and grandchildren in family stories, folklore, music, systems of government, ways of dealing with problems. Our ancestors laws, taboos, arts, priorities, travel patterns, and socialogy affected who they became and what they passed along. Genealogy can address all of this. It is more than names upon a tree. It is a history of who they were as a people and what they taught the next generations. It is a history of how they dealt with what live gave them. The names and dates can be analyzed and compared to learn their stories, their decisions and their challenges. For us, it is a fascinating challenge of our own to uncover the secrets, hopes, hurts, and triumphs they endured. It is a fasicinating journey I would not want to have missed!

    Sharon Centanne
    Genealogical Research Instructor

    Comment by Sharon Centanne — September 6, 2007 @ 3:39 pm |Reply

  2. I would agree with Sharon. It makes no difference how my genetic makeup has or hasn’t been influenced by my ancestors. To me, genealogy is a branch of the larger study of history, and genetics has little to do with it. What genealogists do is lend the personal to the historical. We will “keep on keeping on” because what we are really studying is nothing less than the role of individuals and families in the development of our culture.

    Comment by Jane Gramlich, Librarian — September 7, 2007 @ 11:21 am |Reply

  3. Tracing mt DNA and Y-DNA is not intended to discover one’s own genetic make-up, but to help trace migrations of populations on a grand scale.

    I’ve been having fun getting cousins to have their DNA tested so that I can get the haplogroups of all my grandparents and some great grandparents as well.

    Comment by Jeanette Sherbondy — September 11, 2007 @ 6:26 am |Reply

  4. Pinker’s argument of mathematics fails on a significant point first made by Mendel in the 19th century: a biological trait follows the path of dominant/recessive. So if mama has brown eyes and dad has blue, you are likely to have brown eyes. It is not an algorithm of mathematical power.

    Sperm and ovarian eggs are single strands of DNA, called gametes. They are exact copies of the original. They are not “diluted” by generations. To illustrate my point, consider that there are only 2 genes that determine sex: X and Y. If you combine a matching pair (XX), you get female; combine a non-matching pair (XY), you get male. So what; you don’t have blue eyes. This does not mean that the trait inherited from dad has been eliminated from your genetic make up.

    That is not to say that mutations don’t change the outcome of traits. But does the disconnect make us less “related” to our ancestors? I don’t think so.

    We are products of both our environments and our genetic predispositions. These two factors are not independent of one another. Studies in psychobiology have long established this tight relationship between environment and biology.

    Comment by sfgayle — September 12, 2007 @ 8:56 am |Reply

  5. Thanks for all your comments (and for reading!) This is definitely an issue that will continue to be debated . . . while we keep on researching our ancestors. The history aspect is so much the point: every discovery about ancestors is a door to history and material culture waiting to be opened. . . . I have felt that Mendel’s analysis undercuts Pinker somewhat, but I’m very much a layperson re genetics, hence I didn’t want to get into that on the basis of my “instinct.” So, thanks particularly for adding that point.

    Comment by washergenes — September 20, 2007 @ 10:16 am |Reply

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