“We are stories,” professional genealogist Kory Meyerink told me at the very beginning of my research project into the industry of family history.
“We’ve been stories since our …ancestors were scrawling on cave walls and learning to write, and I think that is what fuels the interest in genealogy today.”
But the craze of chasing our origin stories that has gripped so many of us since the late 1990s cannot be explained so easily. A return to the idea of human connectivity is, to some extent, a reaction to the forces of globalization, post-humanism and deracination — the idea that some may feel a sense of the loss of roots and a loss of racial difference.
Once we begin to think critically about what drives the current craze — our “need to know” where we came from — we encounter contradictory, paradoxical and oxymoronic ideas.
Though some may connect the surge in interest in our personal roots as a desire for “one world/one race” — where everyone is actually related — this leaves out the significant portion of people searching for proof of their whiteness. Much of this activity is actually closely aligned with a moral white panic.
Ancestry.Inc (my shorthand for the business at large) relies heavily on the narrative of “everyone’s related.” Pitching genealogy for the masses in the name of racial harmony, also appeals to those of us who lust for quite the opposite. We want origin stories that make us special, that make us unlike everyone else.
Conservative ideas of family and morality — with their attendant resentments about social progress such as civil rights and gay marriage — are at play, as are the anxieties of being lost in and to deep time.
Yet we are driven to return, again and again, to the question “Who do you think you are?”
Our metaphysical need to know
Anne-Marie Kramer, a British sociologist who studies genealogists, put the problem this way: “Roots are seen to be something absolutely essential for life. What plant can grow without them? What human, then, could grow without roots? But what is rootedness? Is it rootedness to other people? Is it rootedness in time? Is it rootedness in place? To particular communities? To a landscape? To a particular place…where a family has lived?”
Our yearning has produced an industry that, in turn, keeps asking us questions in order to sell us the answers. The rhetorics of the question, “Who do you think you are?” imply that we are mistaken about ourselves or misguided in some way.
We lack information. Consumption is the answer to this metaphysical quandary. And technological tools have created a demand and a way of knowing roots like never before.
The raw material of family history is biological as much as it may be fantasy, its manifestation collective as much as it begins with the individual, and its meanings metaphysical as much as it trades in the verifiable.
Our contemporary faith in the scientific and historically verifiable origins of us has its roots in mystical traditions. Ancient cultures created genealogies of the gods, linking gods and man by blood through mythic invention.
Hesiod’s epic poem Theogony, (the birth of the gods), composed about 700 years before Christ, delineated a genealogy of the pantheon of Greek gods, who in turn gave birth to mortals through the later addition of other poems like the Catalogue of Women.
These origin stories are thought to have been modelled on much older myths from Mesopotamia, in particular the Babylonian creation story of Enuma elish, where the natural elements — wind, water, fire — mated to give birth to gods.
For our purposes, the most relevant story, because it is currently the most influential origin story in the West — and the most intense site of genealogical interest and activity — is the Judeo-Christian tradition: The books of Genesis and Chronicles of the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel according to Matthew, the first book of the New Testament. The Judeo-Christian parables told in Genesis and at various points in the old and new testament give long lines of genealogies to establish the origins of man.
The importance of that genealogy and its imaginary origins — with Adam and Eve — have become ever more relevant today rather than less, as we see in the Mormon project and even in some of the most scientific narratives of genetic origins.
The largest genealogical database in the world, holding 33 times more information than the Library of Congress, has been amassed by the Mormons’ Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. Their doctrine directs them to posthumously baptize the family of man all the way back to Adam and Eve in time for the second coming. Genetic genealogists too fantasize about finding “Mitochondrial Eve.”
The family tree - the genealogical sublime
Genealogy is a widespread hobby driven by a very powerful metaphor: The family tree. The cognitive metaphor of the tree is an organizing principle that has structured much of Western scientific thought in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
But it is far from innocent. Histories of the family tree reveal its disturbing deformities and the extent to which it has been used to organize dangerous and unpalatable ideas into a naturalized form, even as it stands as the most recognized symbol of benign and loving family relationships.
For example, Ernst Haeckel’s 1879 “Tree of Life,” with Man at the top, was modified by 20th-century German scientists to provide a basis for placing Germans at the top of the tree and exterminating Jews from the family of man altogether. And we all know families who have expunged family members or sawed off branches for one offence or another. Families are necessary, but not necessarily benign.
Nonetheless, naturally nourishing images of trees, with leaves and roots delivered by the development of powerful technologies, allow us to trace ancestry as never before, mixing old metaphors and enduring myths, with burgeoning databases. Ancestry is increasingly described as a mathematical formula that stretches well beyond our capacity to know recent generations of ancestors.
I call this phenomenon the “genealogical sublime:” Paradoxical hopes and fears of being connected to a chain of being much, much larger than we can really imagine.
We manage our anxieties about overwhelming sense of insignificance through narrative. Story-telling is the necessary and pleasurable containment of the fear wrought by the disintegration of the self into seemingly infinite data.
Hope that we are connected
We arrive at the current paradox of genealogy: That the need to locate ourselves collectively, a metaphysical and moral project of sorts, is driven by the desire to be unique, to distinguish ourselves from others. Perhaps the need to have an origin story is a good that might not be a good at all.
It’s anti-modern, conservative and ultimately racially motivated, fulfilling a need to locate ourselves in pre-modern tribal affiliations and national belonging.
On the other hand, we want to be hopeful that widespread family networks might mitigate the aggressions of various geopolitical interests and local violences with a notion of compassion. But even as I write this last optimistic phrase, I think “nonsense.”
If deep skepticism underscores my intellectual understanding of the genealogical drive, personal experience and my observations of others insists on its potent curative powers. We mustn’t discount that family supports much of what we think is healthy in the world: Connectedness, identity, love and unbreakable bonds.
Hence a genealogy of genealogy, a study of the emergence of our contemporary need to find family. It is my quest to find some measure of truth in both these positions deeply embedded in religion and aesthetics, morality and, now, money. For our drive to accumulate ancestors has lured us to give away our most personal information to some of the most lucrative databases in the world.