The meaning(lessness) of genetic genealogy

Many years ago, and in another lifetime it seems, I was fascinated by my genealogy. I was a Mormon which made genealogy part of a religious duty, but I also found my early-American
settler, German and Native American heritage fascinating. Due to Ph.D. studies, a marriage and two children, I stopped delving into my genealogy over twenty years ago. Yet, in the last month I’ve
been diving back into genealogy in preparation for and to compare with our soon-to-come 23andme data.

I don’t expect to find out much more from my 23andme data than I already know from my genealogy. I expect our adopted daughters will find out more, but I am beginning to come to the conclusion that it’s not all that particularly meaningful. Forgive this personal, and long, rumination on the meaning of genetic (or any for that matter) genealogy.

I have jumped back into genealogy in a world much changed from 20 years ago, personally and technologically. Adopting two girls has altered my entire definition of “family history” and technologically the ability to research one’s genealogy has increased beyond what I could have imagined 20 years ago. With huge amounts of data online and millions of people researching their genealogy, it has become magnitudes simpler to go back hundreds of years. Huge amounts of data and millions of genealogists online; I’ve always had a pretty good understanding of my family genealogy, but because of those two, I’ve been able to push back my documented genealogical history several hundred years in most lineages.

I’ve found of my 16 great-grand-parents, 12 are fully from Anglo-Scottish-Irish lineages that stretch back to the early 1600′s in Virginia, Massachusetts and South Carolina. 2 are from German immigration in the mid 1800′s and 2 are Native American. I’ve found (or re-found)some interesting stories, like the XGGrandfather who was accused of witchcraft in the Salem witch trials (imprisoned and later freed), or the signer of the Declaration of Independence. On a few lines I’ve been able to push back the history hundreds of more years. In one case, it reaches back over 1,000 years. I learned that some of my ancestors were French (le Strange… no, not ofHarry Potter fame) who came over during or soon after the Norman invasion  of England. Some where Welsh with names like Madog ap Madog who married into the aristocratic English families that were taking over their lands. Some possibly French and German aristocracy, and of course we all go back to Charlemagne one way or the other don’t we?

So, I’ve jumped deep into my genealogical pool. I don’t expect the 23andme data will tell me much more than I already know. Of course, that will be different for our adopted daughters, but is there really anything of significant meaning for any of us?

The further back I traveled my family history, the more meaningless it has become. Go back 10 generations and you have over 1,000 direct ancestors. Go back 20 and you have a possible million direct ancestors. And in the case of the one lineage I was able to trace back 32 generations? A possible 8 billion direct ancestors.[LINK] Well, of course that isn’t true, there weren’t 8 billion people on earth in 1,000 AD, in fact there were only anestimated 250 million people on Earth. So I’m possibly descended from over 30 times the number of people on earth at the time. There was a lot of lineage collapse I’m sure (cousins, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and further, and removed, marrying each other). There’s two points to this paragraph. The first is, if I have thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of ancestors, what relevance do any one of those have to who I am? And the second? The further back I go in my history, I must be related to a larger and larger percentage of the population in the world at that time. I haven’t done the statistics, wouldn’t know where to begin (there’s a project I’m sure that must have been done), but I suspect the percentage of the population of the world in 1,000bc that I am a direct descendent of is much greater than the percentage in 1,000ad.. and so on. Eventually, my story is the world’s story. But I don’t need to go back 30 generations to find that the meaning of an individual ancestor, or entire lineages become well, minimal at best. Sure, I can go back 3 or 4 generations and find meaning. I am pretty sure the reason we were served scrapple, weisswurst and liverwurst at home is because of my grandfather grew up in a half-German household. I now know that many of the stories and aphorisms my grandmother told me had roots in native lore, and so forth. I can see my grandfather in my face and mine in my nephews’. But, there is much I don’t share even with my close ancestors. Much of their culture was not passed down to me even though there is an unbroken line. I don’t speak German, nor Algonquin. I’m sure there are holiday traditions that have been lost. To look at my native American-descended great grandmother is to see someone who I don’t see myself in.

Go back even further and the things that are passed on genetically and culturally become even more minimal. What is the chance that one of my 10x great grandparents pass on specific alleles. It’s there, but go back another 10. Of course something gets passed on, otherwise the 23andme ancestry component would be completely useless. But culturally? I don’t speak French, German, Welsh, Italian, Algonquin or any of the languages of my ancestors. The more I learn about my genetic ancestors, the more I learn that I have inherited only a small part of their culture, and even then it’s an unbalanced inheritance. Some recent ancestors contributed more to my family culture than others. Some contributed very little.

And from studying my genetic ancestry, I’ve found that a large portion of the culture I was raised in has nothing at all to do with my genetic heritage. The music we listened to, the food I eat, the holidays we celebrate, the history that shaped my locality and my nation, all the myriad things that make up my culture that I grew up in, these were as much shaped by genetic strangers as they were by my genetic ancestors, perhaps more. Yes, my signer of the declaration of independence ancestor affected my culture tremendously, but he would have if he were my ancestor or not. And, I am quite certain the slave who sang his songs, or the abolitionist who fought the battles, and the writings of William Faulkner and Mark Twain have affected my culture, who I am and how I think, as much more more than my South Carolinian plantation owner ancestors. I know that the Mormon pioneers who crossed the plains affected who I am today much more than many of my direct ancestors, even though I am not related to them. The same goes for the Spanish settlers of California. Who I am culturally is only tangentially related to who I am genetically.

This has become more clear to me as my husband I have adopted two children. We each inherit two histories when we are born, our genetic history and our cultural history. For many of us, the two are deeply intertwined, but as I’m finding out, not necessarily at all the same. For an adopted child, they are separate. Contrary to what a well-meaning family member, and what some adoptive parents, believe, we do not inherit our cultures genetically. One’s taste in food, language, literature preferences and all the things that make up that complicated beast called ‘culture’ is something we learn and react to. If you took me as a new born and dropped me into a Siberian household, I’d be Siberian. Drop me into a Chinese household, I’d be Chinese. Sure, who I am in that hypothetical Chinese family would be shaped tremendously by my genetics, people’s reactions to a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy would affect my personality, but I wouldn’t be any more culturally “American” or “European” than any other child in that town. People have asked us if we are teaching our daughter “her” culture. But she came to us as a newborn infant. “Her” culture is whatever she is learning from us and the world around it. It’s not somehow genetically tied to her skin color or race. She didn’t bring with her a set of cultural values she biologically inherited from her genetic forebears. In fact, none of us have.

This is not to say we should not teach her about the African-American history and culture. She didn’t genetically inherit it, but in the culture she is apart of, and the reactions people have to her skin color, requires her to understand that cultural heritage. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it requires _me_ to understand that cultural heritage. In fact, a couple years ago Andrew Sullivan and a thread about how African American culture actually is. From the music we listen to (Rock, Jazz,  Blues) and the instruments we play on (Banjo), to the food we eat (mac and cheese anyone?), the prose of Mark Twain, down to our fundamental understanding of the phrase “All men are created equal,” Africa and African Americans have not only impacted American culture they are fundamental to it.

To understand who I am, how I think and where I came from I must understand African heritage as much as my genetic heritage. Perhaps more.

So it comes down to this, studying my genetic genealogy can and has heightened my understanding of who I am. I’ve learned about the founding of this nation, about the movement of peoples across seas and continents, stories of ancestors that profoundly affect my culture and how I think.

You see, Lane Wallace is wrong in her flippant remark about about novelist Erdrich.

The element of the last PBS episode I found most intriguing was Gates’ interview with novelist Louise Erdrich, who declined to have her DNA tested because her identity as a descendant of the Chippewa Native American tribe is so important to her. She said that she felt her tribe and family were what made her who she was. And, as she explained to Gates, she “didn’t want to add any confusion to it.” Erdrich, in other words, didn’t want cold, scientific facts to confuse her cherished notion of who she was, based on her assumed heritage.

The cold hard  facts are that her assumed heritage is indeed her heritage, not the genetic finds.

Genetics it is neither necessary, and definitely not sufficient, to understand my culture and who I am. If I was focused on my genetic family history, I’d be missing out on the major part of who I am. I’d be missing out on all the other stories of the non-genetic ancestors who have had as great , and sometimes greater, an impact on my culture and who I am. The Mormon pioneers, the African American, Irish and Italian immigrants and so many others.

Focusing on my genetic genealogy will give me part of the picture of who I am and I find interest in it. It does inform some of my study, but I can get a broader, deeper and more meaningful understanding of who I am by studying history.

So, I will be interested in our 23andme ancestry data, we’ll use mine, my husband’s and our daughter’s to guide us in the creation of our family history and our family map*, but with the understanding that alone, it tells us only one part of the story about who we are.

*instead of a family tree, our family has a family map. Places our ancestors and major cultural influences come from are pinpointed on a world map (Germany, England, Spain, Eastern N. American, West Africa, Mexico, Korea, Scandinavia) with lines drawn across the map showing migrations, all eventually pointing to and ending up at our home in San Francisco. It better represents who we are.

5 thoughts on “The meaning(lessness) of genetic genealogy

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  2. Shaun

    What a great post Trey! It reminds me of other suggestions I’ve read (perhaps even from you?) that familial and genetic trees should be thought of as distinct. Only the familial relationships can be determined from genealogical records, because at each generation there is a non-zero chance of adoption or infidelity.

    I have to call you out on this statement though:
    “I suspect the percentage of the population of the world in 1,000bc that I am a direct descendant of is much greater than the percentage in 1,000ad.. and so on”

    I don’t think that’s at all necessarily true. If you have mainly European ancestry, then there’s a fairly strict geographically enforced upper-limit on the proportion of the world’s historical population that could be your ancestor. Furthermore, if you go back far enough, things get non-intuitive. Most of the people who lived thousands of years ago have left no descendants who are alive today. The so-called “mitochondrial Eve” is a good (albeit extreme) example. She, the universal common female ancestor of all living humans, is thought to have lived only 200,000 years ago, but she was only one of tens of thousands of other modern humans living at the time. The so-called “Y-chromosomal Adam” lived at least 100,000 years more recently. And for geographical sub-populations, the corresponding universal mitochondrial & Y ancestors are much more recent — perhaps only a few thousand years ago for most Europeans. So go back far enough, and the percentage of the population that you are a descendant of starts going down, not towards 100%.

  3. Trey

    The familial (cultural?) and genetic trees being distinct is something I’ve recently (last few years?) come to realize.

    Thanks for reading and the comments.

    I take your point (and I’m thinking of a way to rephrase that). I think that doesn’t take into account large migrations of humans over time (and the admixture) nor the fact that the “universal common female ancestor” is not the _only_ ancestor of all human kind, just the only one that passed on the genetic we can measure.

  4. Pingback: Of Mormons and Mozambique: a cursory look @ 23andMe ancestry data | The OpenHelix Blog

  5. Kevin Roache

    I have relatively recently started to trace my Irish roots and find it thoroughly fascinating. I am very impressed with your site and intend to use it significantly in my future quest. My fervent wish is to bring out the Irish in every person who can lay claim to having roots in Ireland.

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