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on the family jewels [Dec. 29th, 2010|09:08 pm]
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Chief: ...I want to know everything about him! Has he got a girl? Has he got parents?
Reporter: Everybody has... parents.
Chief: All right,... HOW MANY?
--- The Hudsucker Proxy

I think we're all suckers for a really great story.

One of the programs on TV recently is about the legend of Robin Hood and the Merry Men, framed loosely around a historical narrative and excerpting extensively from the Russell Crowe vehicle released earlier this year. My choice of this story is partly to play to the diverse political sensitivities of the potential readership here, and we could leave things at that, but the point here is not to recount the history of the mythology but to introduce a conceptual toolset.

This being either the “Hitler” channel, or one of its many clones, you have to be very careful what you feel you learn from these things. Nonetheless, they trace the history of the Robin Hood legend, and how it evolves over the years and when various characters start to get introduced. For example, Maid Marian, or Friar Tuck, were later additions to the ensemble. Often, added characters or the characteristics they portray reflect more on the sensibilities of the era in which they were altered. There's always a little back and forth over the years, and anyone who tries to get at the “real” Robin Hood is more likely to be introducing their own mores into the character rather than trying to ferret out a historical entity for what they are. Was there even a Robin Hood once upon a time? It doesn't matter.


I've been letting myself get sucked into the world of amateur genealogy, especially with regard to genetic genealogy, and as a hobby it's kind of fun to learn more about your own past and the lives of your relatives. Let me tell you though, there's one truth about the past, and that is, life is not easy. If you're the kind of sucker for stories with a happy ending, I can guarantee you that if you're investigating the past, there's only one certainty, that in 100 years or less, give or take, everybody winds up dead. Given that, I think its probably a good philosophy that knowing the ending, the path you take should probably be an interesting one.

There was a fad in the 1980's concerning reincarnation, where people would get in touch with psychics (aka "crooks") who would tell you about your past lives by contacting the “spirit world”. One of the biggest criticisms of this as bunk was the large number of people who would have excessively interesting pasts, having been reincarnated from instantly recognizable or accomplished figures. You can even see this too in, for example, biographies of people like General Patton, who acted at times like he just was in a great state of deja vu, marching across Europe and Africa. That said, much of what is written about genetic genealogy worries me deeply along the same vein. The problem is, there's a good amount of science and historical fact that backs the bunk. There's good reason to believe, just from statistical proof, that if people are randomly procreating, with some having many children and some having none, that over time the number of people from a given period in history who have great-great-whatever-grandchildren must begin to dwindle, and that before long you trace back to a most-recent-common-ancestor, or “MRCA”. Likewise, if you trace back your ancestry long enough, you begin to be overwhelmed by the number of great-great-whatever-grandparents, eventually where the number of place settings in your tree begin to exceed the number of people who can sit at them. If a famous person had lots of children, the odds that they are your great-great-whatever-grandparent begin to go up, and I suppose it's a lot more interesting to be descended from someone famous, or who is “royalty”, than the third spear-target from the left.

And, it's perhaps a fact of life that many famous figures from history have had a lot of issue from their loins. It's perhaps a sidetrack, but I really have grown to detest the concept of “illegitimate children”. First of all, I hate that word “illegitimate”- children are pretty innocent when they start out and, by and large, history has shown that people with all sorts of hands dealt them by their genes, both favorable and unfavorable, can grow up to be either remarkable or unremarkable largely by their own will and how they use their circumstance, but to some extent, too, from good or bad parenting. In that regard, watching the reality show “Gene Simmons' Family Jewels” has been quite emotionally impacting to me- I recommend it if you get the chance. It's definitely a good thing, in general, for you if your parents, especially your biological parents, like each other and don't take out their frustrations too badly on each other. I think I've been pretty lucky, all told. There's a fair bit of evidence both ways that cultural mores don't ensure success (or failure) in that regard. To my way of thinking, there are your biological or non-biological parents, and biologically speaking, I'm pretty sure it's axiomatic that you get two biological parents. Everything else is a cultural more or circumstance that changes as often as celebrity hairstyles, and has about as much meaning- some come out well, and some are a disaster. But, I'm repeatedly amazed by the fact that despite that axiom, the number of grandparents you get is not always four. I mean, it's common sense that if you go back many generations that the number of place-settings in a binary tree will quickly outrank the number of people who can sit at them, and yet probably everyone you know has four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents. But it's a lot more confusing when you throw in the actual facts of heredity, not to mention random chance, and recombination.

Einstein famously hated the suggestion that creation could be random. Despite years of research, we have yet to make anything computerized more random than the “pseudo”-random generator. Yet, there does seem to exist something like a fair die, too. During meiosis, when the cells in your sex-organs divide in a way that creates the gametes that can combine later to create offspring, the two “similar” chromosomes line up and swap parts to create two different cells. I'm struck by the fact that a statistical sampling of base-pairs of my and my brother's DNA on chromosomes 15 and 17 show that, except for a little bit on the ends, they came from completely different grandparents. Like, hypothetically, I got my mother's father and father's mother's chromosomes, and he got vice versa. Other chromosomes are somewhat more randomly mixed for the two of us, some parts from the same grandparents, others only half-so. So, I'm left with a data-point of 1: is what happened random, or is there a mechanism regulating it? To look at people, even twins, whose hair-color and dimples and whatnot seem fairly well governed by things you inherit, it seems pretty random. But to look at long stretches of same-ness or different-ness, is it necessarily so?

Even if you successfully have children, and grandchildren, ad infinitum, it is certainly possible that bits and pieces will begin to fall by the wayside. So in addition to the failure to reproduce which will begin to prune the list of great-great-whatever-grandparents, there's also a bit of random in chromosomal crossover that gets thrown in as well. I'm certain that the serious, professional genetic genealogists have taken this into consideration when calculating the age of our male and female MRCAs, colloquially “Adam and Eve”, but it never seems to get explained very well when I try to read up on it. So recombination, too, means that you're not necessarily “one quarter” of all of your four grandparents even though you may be statistically genetically so. Hence, you don't “necessarily” have four grandparents, no matter how well you can draw a family tree.


Having a robust and fully functional bullshit detector is an absolute priceless tool in today's society, because we are (moreso than previous generations) inundated with a exponentially growing hedge of fact and fiction, and any gardener worth their salt in this environment is going to prune with an eye to aesthetics, and I don't care how well you've read your Aristotle (or Aquinas or Maimonides, if you prefer), there is no such thing as absolute beauty or truth. You kind of have to wing it for a while, until you have some hard evidence that can help you make a more permanent decision. It must be great to have other people make up your mind for you, but that's not who I am- I spend quite a bit of time “winging it”.

As best I can, I've been trying to deal with the facts of my ancestry, as best as I can pull them together, with an eye to the dispassionately neutral. I can't say that I'm not colored by my own experience. In fifth or sixth grade, there was a class exercise on “family crests” and whatnot and people were asked to put together a genealogy or a family crest or the such. I distinctly remember a certain subgroup of the class “looking down” on the other kids because they “could trace their family to the Mayflower”, I think implying that they were somehow more American or some such bunk. I remember feeling “left out” a bit because I couldn't figure out how to go very far into my past. So, if I get a little chuckle now because I found a single, possible link to 1600s era residents of Massachusetts, I try to let it pass, and not get too obsessed with it, because I can never be sure if it's bullshit or not. And it doesn't make me any more of an “American”- I think the most “American” you could possibly be is a newly immigrated person stealing a native's job, at some level. But also, this idea of a “family crest” was pretty disturbing too. We spend all this time in history class on how America was founded to “throw off the yoke of tyranny”, and here we go turning around and assuming the trappings of that tyranny in time. But, kudos if you can trace your family tree to someone famous or royal, because it's so much easier to just adopt everything that was written about a famous person as your own history, rather than to deeply respect the actual diversity that is very likely from that big binary table of great-great-whatevers.

Much of my ancestry, perhaps boringly so, is apparently peasant class, and as such, tracing past my great-grandparents has become extremely difficult. Welcome to Ellis Island! (toot-toot, full stop). I was especially thrilled to make a connection with someone who was a predicted third cousin (“once removed”, through a great-great grandparent) on 23andme.com because validating that genetic observation with a paper trail has meant poring through a mountain of poorly transcribed crap data and the initial reaction that “how can We (huff-huff) be related to someone who's Chinese?” I'm hoping that I can find some more connections, because it's not the finding the person, per se, it's been the journey.

At work, we're warned off the natural tendency for humans to “tell stories”, and part of my job has been taking accountability training that helps you overcome that tendency. You know, when it's other people and the real story probably isn't the same as the story I tell myself, well, that's well and good. But when we talk about people in the past who cannot speak for themselves? It's been really interesting with just the barest scraps of genealogical data what stories I can come up with on how these various connections are made. In the end, the DNA doesn't lie, a string of half-identical regions seems as black and white as you can make it, but that string of GATC gets twisted and mixed each generation, and putting a story on those facts is a time consuming, if not fulfilling, proposition.


So, then you have the family mythology, too. I'm sure everybody's got a few, because like I said, we're all a sucker for a good story. And, like Robin Hood, maybe there was even a real person there, once upon a time. From time to time, the story gets dug up- that one of my great-great-whatevers was a bastard child of some royal house or other, and if it ever got found out our lives would be in danger. Given the 150 years or so that have passed, I'm sure I'm not going to paint a target on myself or my family by repeating it, but you know, letting 150 years pass on these things gives me a very interesting perspective on covering up the truth, or lying, and what it means long term. I think, when a coverup happens, it happens to protect people- people can be cruel or spiteful or hateful, and well, that sucks. But, the twists of coverups and untruths really make it hard to find out what is actually true. It would be really nice if I could have some certainty, that if I'm going to build a philosophy, a moral structure for myself, that in looking to the past for insight I am not ultimately building on sand, clouds, or dreams.

To my way of thinking, myths and fables might have their use or place, but nothing teaches like an honest truth. I try to live my life honestly, openly- it's sometimes difficult, and I also feel a strong desire to respect others around me who don't want their “facts” blabbed about. But, too, I've been discovering for myself how “true” it is to what extent that “the truth is a pathless land”. That said, I try to be an open book, documenting what I actually feel, what I actually experience, and what I feel I have actually learned. Some of these things might not be looked on favorably by others, and sometimes it turns out to be not so on second reckoning. But, hopefully, in the end, it was interesting.