February 8, 2014

NYT: "Are You My Cousin?"

Contemporary thinking about genealogy seems exceptionally lowbrow.

From the New York Times:
Are You My Cousin? 
By A. J. JACOBS   JAN. 31, 2014 
I LOVE my family, but I’m glad I don’t have to buy birthday presents for all my cousins. I’d be bankrupt within a week. 
My family tree sprawls far and wide. It’s not even a tree, really. More like an Amazonian forest. At last count, it was up to nearly 75 million family members. In fact, there’s a good chance you’re on some far-flung branch of my tree, and if you aren’t, you probably will be soon. It’s not really my tree. It’s our tree.  
The previously staid world of genealogy is in the midst of a controversial revolution. A handful of websites have turbocharged family trees with a collaborative, Wikipedia-like approach. You upload your family tree, and then you can merge your tree with another tree that has a cousin in common. After that, you merge and merge again. This creates vast webs with hundreds of thousands — or millions — of cousins by blood and marriage, provided you think the links are accurate.

How good are online genealogy websites?

A few years ago, I helped out some relatives, two brothers, trying to find out about their father who had died when they were young. Their mother had remarried and their new stepfather had put the kibosh on all talk of their father. Now they were middle-aged and wished to get in touch with a whole side of their biological family they didn't know anything about.

I was not impressed with the quality and disinterestedness of the commercial genealogy sites I came across in a quick review. I eventually tracked down the newspaper in Whittier, CA in which an obituary of their father would likely have appeared, but only intermittent parts of the archives are online and not the crucial month. (The Whittier College library no doubt has the full newspaper archives on microfilm, but I've never gotten out there to look at them.)

Hopefully, the quality online genealogy has improved over the last few years.
One site, Geni, has what it calls the World Family Tree, with about 75 million relatives in more than 160 countries and all seven continents, including Antarctica. 
My newfound kin include the actress and lifestyle guru Gwyneth Paltrow, a mere 17 steps away, and the jazz great Quincy Jones, a mere 22. There’s also the former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who is apparently my wife’s great-uncle’s wife’s first cousin once removed’s husband’s uncle’s wife’s son’s wife’s first cousin once removed’s husband’s brother’s wife’s nephew. 
These folks have no clue who I am. They have yet to return my calls. But at least according to this research, we are, in the broadest sense, family. 
In a few years, we may have a single tree containing nearly all seven billion humans on earth. The Family of Man will no longer be an abstract cliché. We’re all related — we just have to figure out how. ...

Concepts like "pedigree collapse" appear to be ungraspable in the current zeitgeist.


Anonymous said...

The LDS site is pretty good, however, there are many bogus relationships in there from little old grannies looking to tie Aunt Edna to George Washington. The LDS site allows you to post evidence supporting the relationship and the LDS also has electronic extracts of over a billion records.

Z said...

Childlessness runs in my family so I'm not sure how this project would work for my line.

Anonymous said...

Before the internet, researchers used to pick one surname line and prove all the connections. When this data arrived on the internet, people had access to large amounts of reliable information. Now days, most research amounts to no more than connecting trees with very little primary source research. I am disappointed in ancestry.com, most of my lineages posted there are flat wrong and new people click that little leaf and copy the wrong lineages a hundred times over.

Horseball said...

Treamendous strides. The records available on ancestry keep getting better (although many are transcribed in Uganda, believe it or not). Youve got to watch the trees of other users. There are also computer generated hints that are sometimes good, often repetitous or wrong. Few are good many are shite. I see people add my relatives all the time when i know its wrong.
The digitalization of newspapers will be great for this,i.e., scanning old microfilms to searchable .pdf. there's funny story you can find on Reason mag wesite about fultonhistory.com. Tom Trynaski a retiree who offers free access to newspapers. He has more newspapers and gets more hits than the library of congress.

Im very happy with ancestry.com despite the howling of the old biddies who complain about having to pay. I took the DNA test and am awaiting results. My understanding is that its much better than the "12% african" ones of a few years back.

Anonymous said...

Great - now, besides knowing all of my own idiosyncrasies, Google, Facebook, and the NSA get to know who all of my relatives are, all the way out to my 17th cousins. What could go wrong?

Hunsdon said...

Oh, come on. Is no one going to go there? OK. OK. I'll go there.

J. A. Jacobs wrote: My family tree sprawls far and wide. It’s not even a tree, really.

Hunsdon finished for him: It's more like a Tribe.

Jan Rogozinski said...

I am an historian, as you know, with one emphasis on prosopography. Which is the study of folk that shared an attribute at the time they lived. For example, all bishops in the diocese of X. Or all graduates of Harvard. As oppossed to a book called “Some folk I have retroactively decided were great Americans.

Germans especially like this science, and in fact the word prosopographie was invented by a great German historian, Theodore Mommsen. (Question, why could a guy during the 19th century write so many excellent books, using a steel pen by lamp light. And today profs can produce so little with computers??)

If one is looking at, say, the bishops and abbots in diocese X,. it is of course interesting to see if they are related. So I do look at genealogies.

Most family histories today are sub-Disney fantasias. They are crap. The standard the French Nobility Association uses to admit new members is (1) at least one valid piece of paper saying someone is noble. (2) Written proof of unbroken descent from that someone.

(In France, titles are treated as personal property, so one could sue someone using one's title. Note: One clue is that titles of nobility are titles of office. So all valid counts are counts of a specific place. Which a lot of folk in Palm Beach seem not to know.)

By that standard, 99.9% of pop genealogy is garbage. For one thing, there are no written records of births and deaths in England before the 14th century. And they are even more recent in Europe.

There are a few sources. For example, French monasteries kept records of the property they received as gifts. Being smarter than Americans today, the donors usually got all their relatives to approve of and sign the record of donation. Thus avoiding a certain percentage of law suits over inheritances. But these records are rare for anyone below the noble and merchant classes.

What abaters do is to assume that because two folk have the same name, they musts be related. But histograms have proved how wrong that method is over and over again. (It’s wait Krugman has been calling a Zombie theory.) There were no laws regulating names. Even after folk had fixed last names, sometimes half the families in town favored the same first names—for example, for girls, the name of a famous local saint.

Indeed, Pop genealogies are junk on the face of it. Everyone always ends up descended from queens and dukes. But, for example, 90% of Polish folk were serfs until 1863. So, by definition 90% of Polacks should find that their ancestors were serfs. But that somehow doesn't happen.

Anonymous said...

Ancestry.com is the AOL of the internet genealogy world.

Familysearch is much better in that they are putting online actual images of original documents. Their turnover time is amazing. They digitized the 1940 census in months. All through volunteerism. Helped, no doubt by religious conviction on the part of many volunteers. But lots of non-Mormons as well. It's a wonderful example of what volunteerism can accomplish, contrasted with ancestry.com's for profit model and state and federal governments' really slow digitization pace. Outside of genealogy, this accomplishment, I think, says something about the US current malaise which is caused by GOP profit uber alles and Demo Big Government.

In order to help the largest number of people possible, many of whom are novices, familysearch is indexing most of the records. If you already know what you are looking for, however, it can be frustrating. I'd much rather them throw all the records online with a browsing feature.

rightsaidfred said...

Time to update the Haldane quip: "Two brothers, eight cousins, or seventy five million random bastards."

Reg Cæsar said...

The 2006 post linked to drew two only two responses, and those were much more than a day late and a dollar short. Is this an example of comment collapse?

Ecto said...

Ancestry.com has a tremendous amount of original source material and an excellent search engine. However, the family trees that are created collaboratively are often full of errors. I'm not sure what it will take to undo the damage that that has done to genealogy. But as long as you don't take any of the automated lineage information too seriously, it is an excellent resource. FamilySearch is a good alternative if you don't want to pay for Ancestry.

Tanstaafl said...

Studies Show Jews’ Genetic Similarity - NYTimes.com:

The shared genetic elements suggest that members of any Jewish community are related to one another as closely as are fourth or fifth cousins in a large population, which is about 10 times higher than the relationship between two people chosen at random off the streets of New York City, Dr. Atzmon said.

Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews have roughly 30 percent European ancestry, with most of the rest from the Middle East, the two surveys find. The two communities seem very similar to each other genetically, which is unexpected because they have been separated for so long.

Reg Cæsar said...

The standard the French Nobility Association uses to admit new members is (1) at least one valid piece of paper saying someone is noble. (2) Written proof of unbroken descent from that someone. --J Rogozinski

This is no different from the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, the Daughters (or Sons, or Children) of the American Revolution, the Society of the Cincinnati, and other North American lineage societies.

Believe it or not, we do have standards on this side of the ocean, too. If you want to check this out, ignore the posted trees (which can only be corrected by the one posting them) and go right to the specialized mailing lists and surname boards, where any howlers are quickly spotted by experienced and careful genealogists.

Everyone always ends up descended from queens and dukes. --JR

Everyone is descended from queens and dukes, if you go back far enough. And more so from kings.

Blacks claim descent from African royalty. Well, when half the children in any given village were sired by the local potentate, how could this not be true. Same with American Indians-- Pocahontas's father puts Joseph Smith to shame, with his 149 wives.

A frightening percentage of Asian men have Genghis Khan in the male line. Presumably all Asians have him in some line.

But, for example, 90% of Polish folk were serfs until 1863. So, by definition 90% of Polacks should find that their ancestors were serfs. --JR

No, Poles should find that 90% of their ancestors were serfs.

The difference is subtle, but important. 100% of Poles will find serfs in their ancestry, and 100% will find royalty, if they just go back far enough.

FredR said...

I was amazed at how much I could find out about my American ancestors just by looking at snippets on google books.

Anonymous said...

The 2006 post linked to drew two only two responses, and those were much more than a day late and a dollar short. Is this an example of comment collapse?

Comments were not enabled yet on this site in 2006.

Auntie Analogue said...

Wow. I went online and discovered that I'm descended from the Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl, Duke, Duke, Duke....

Jerry said...

"Everyone always ends up descended from queens and dukes. But, for example, 90% of Polish folk were serfs until 1863. So, by definition 90% of Polacks should find that their ancestors were serfs. But that somehow doesn't happen."

<< This was true only for the Russian-ruled lands. In terms of population, and without getting into the problem of who was a Pole in the Kresy, it works out that no more than half the Poles, in both the 1860s and 1914, were under Russian rule. Add to this the class differences between Poles and indigenous peasants in the East...

Anonymous said...

The DNA sites may eventually (already are) provide useful information but the ghastly practices of the LDS Church, combined with people's natural wish to KNOW their background has rendered genealogical sites, commercial or otherwise, worse than useless.

Understand that part of becoming a Mormon means providing a list of relatives and ancestors whether you know who they are or not. Also understand that the people composing these 'lists' generally have no clue who their ancestors are past great grandparents, if even that, and therefore do their best composing a list. This means engaging such useful research as 'somebody said great grandmother Smith was from E. Tennessee, here's a Smith family from E. Tennessee, that must be great grandmother Smith. The LDS site is chock full of these things and then people use this wholly corrupted database to make further spurious connections.

I inherited a very old family farm on the East Coast that had been in the family since the late-18th century. You cannot imagine how much crap has been written about my family on the LDS site simply because the farm provides a continuous and well documented family line. The LDS site gives my mother siblings she never had. The problem with genealogy is that nobody believes they are the ones descended from the family who left no documented legacy behind even though hundreds of thousands fit that description. The LDS Church, aside from being a preposterous con, is a vast negative force for accuracy in the field of genealogy. With any luck, DNA will save it.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a better way of getting a grasp of apparent genetic relationships is to use a 'spit-and-send-it' commercial DNA testing site such as 23andMe, which offers testing at the bargain basemnet price of $99, (no plug intended). Rather than going through rather spurious and tedious paper trails, which may or may not exist, 23andMe uses hard science in that what are termed 'identity by descent' seequences in customer's DNA are compared with other customers on the database. A default IBD region of 5centiMorgans, is I believe, reliably said to indicate kinship within 'historic' times, which i guess means a few hundred years.
Anyhow, I had mine done, and it's come up with some surprising results. Apparently I have genetic relatives in virtually every sigle European state, from Portugal to Finland, from Greece to Norway etc. A lot of the connections it has found are perplexing to me, for as far as I know, I definitely had no relations in those nations. Some of the 'perplexing' relations are fairly strong too.

SQT said...

I for one was extremely impressed by the DNA test on Ancestry.com. I thought it would be a fairly general test that would give me some information about my ethnicity (I'm adopted) and I ended up finding my birth mother!

The family tree is somewhat less precise because it's dependent on the accuracy of family records but it has been a treasure trove of information.

Anonymous said...

Familysearch is much better in that they are putting online actual images of original documents. Their turnover time is amazing. They digitized the 1940 census in months. All through volunteerism.

That was quite an impressive feat, done mostly by grandmas working together for a common goal.

I find the LDS Familysearch site useful for collaborating with other families that document their genealogies with evidence. It's like object-oriented genealogy, where we can reuse each other's work as long as it's documented appropriately. And even if it isn't, it can provide clues that can occasionally allow the proposed relationship to be remediated through further research.

One thing the Mormons could do to really help the accuracy of amateur genealogy is digitize more government holdings of deeds from the colonial period. Deeds and wills give a highly accurate, if incomplete, picture of family relationships at a given time, since real wealth was on the line. Same thing with colonial tithables lists and subsequent to 1782, personal property tax lists. The tax man was pretty accurate at counting his adult white males, black slaves and horses.

Anonymous said...

In the article A.J. Jacobs found through DNA testing that he was related to his wife. Hillbilly jokes followed, however, I suspect Mr. Jacobs isn't Scots-Irish. He's Scots-Irish.

Anonymous said...

Jan Rogozinski:

Pop genealogies are junk on the face of it. Everyone always ends up descended from queens and dukes. But, for example, 90% of Polish folk were serfs until 1863. So, by definition 90% of Polacks should find that their ancestors were serfs. But that somehow doesn't happen.

Its called downward mobility. Only one noble son can inherit the title and lands. The rest have to content themselves with knightship, being merchants, priests, or plain old gentlemen farmers. Over time, most of the descendants return to the mean, which is being an ignorant peasant farmer.

My mother's family was Norman nobility. Its fairly obvious - we have two villages in the West Country that were ours where are ancestors are buried in the chapels, and our name only comes from there. However, I am not Anglo-Norman nobility, not even close! Because I am descended from a younger son who ended up going to London to get into the foreign trade business and from there moved to Long Island in the 1630's. If I look around at my maternal relatives today, some have interesting positions in business and government, but some are the modern equivalent of Polish peasants - lowly Non-Coms in the Army, farmers, mechanics, clerks.

James Kabala said...

Reg: The site did not have comments when the old post was first made.

I think the original article was mostly supposed to be a humor piece, by the way.

RAZ said...

“Everyone always ends up descended from queens and dukes. But, for example, 90% of Polish folk were serfs until 1863. So, by definition 90% of Polacks should find that their ancestors were serfs. But that somehow doesn't happen.”

90% of Polish folk could at one point in time may have been serfs. But the better off classes probably had more children per capita, and would certainly have had a higher percentage of their children who survived to child bearing age, so you would expect that over time the percentage of Polish folk who were not serf dependent would increase.

Anonymous said...

"and all seven continents, including Antarctica."

Whaaaa? Penguins participating maybe?


panjoomby said...

I agree with SQT - ancestry is a good resource tool! often misused by clicking on links & creating relatives without documentation - some genealogists are careful (whether mormon or not - i'm ex-LDS - science & reality led me astray:). some family trees online are better documented than others.

Autosomal DNA is valuable info - mtDNA & Y-DNA are very general & mildly interesting - but more bang for your buck with autosomal DNA!

I found & befriended documented family in my area i didn't know existed till ancestry.com.

the author of that article in your article is a whiner. ancestry protects info for living & recently deceased - people have to have been dead for a while for their info to be there! connecting with & emailing or meeting new (documented!) relatives can be a fun experience.

Anonymous said...

OT: Paging Steve Sailer


Horseball said...

A guy in Michigan found my tree on ancestry.com and sent me me a love letter and picture of my great great grandmother that she had sent to his great grandfather, who kept until his death. That was pretty interesting.

With famous relatives, my great 3x grandfather was the first cousin of Russell Sage, the 19th cent. financier, but i also found the newspaper article that said that he "made it clear that he did not care for his poor Chautauwua county relations".

Udolpho.com said...

can't do math, it's too hard...this kind of idiocy seems like a sign that society is getting too dumb to sustain itself

with a trace said...

I have seen the nonsense in some cases, but I've corroborated the genealogy on ancestry.com and familysearch, with diocesean records (the most reliable in Lousiana and the Gulf area, where there were a lot Cathlics.) Also, New England records were very well kept. Literacy and record keeping were much advanced by the time the Pilgrims came, and no wars or social anarchy destroy anything. I've gotten consistent ancestral lineages from a New England line I traced.
Most of my work was done 15-10 years ago, so maybe it's different now.

Anonymous said...

If you treat an unsourced genealogy as gospel truth, and it turns out not to be true, that is your fault, not the fault of the guy who posted it. If we required metaphysical certitude of every public statement, rational inquiry would grind to a halt.

with a trace said...

By the way. Concerning pedigree collapse. I absolutely know there is African ancestry in my background. I even saw the documents from the 18th and 19th century, corresponded with a distant cousin researching the same (he was 4th cousin), saw odd looks in some of my father's relatives, etc. etc. It was there. But when I had a DNA test done, it showed 99% European and 1% American Indian. No African. (and no, there's no chance I'm not my dad's kid). Never found out where that Indian was except that the black g-grandmothers 6 greats ago, was half Indian. So no African genes, but a persistent Indian gene? Or did the Indian come from somewhere else? Doesn't matter. I'm white for all intents and purposes and finding out about distant non-white ancestry has had zilch effect on anything. I am what I am, and I observe others as they are. No connection.
And don't go around telling Indians you're part Indian unless you really look it or are culturally Indian (feather kind). They really hate people who go on about being 1/16 Cherokee or whatever, trying to ride on some romantic notion of what it is to be "Indian." btw, there was nothing "romantic" about it anyway.

Anonymous said...

tanstaafl's NYT link discusses the Atzmon paper from 2010. Mr. Wade's science reporting is generally good, but it's not a substitute for reading the original papers, especially when the paper is available for free online. About admixture and relationships of Jewish populations to one another, the paper states that "two major differences among the populations in this study were the high degree of European admixture (30%–60%) among the Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Italian, and Syrian Jews and the genetic proximity of these populations to each other compared to their proximity to Iranian and Iraqi Jews." More recent research has found that most Ashkenazi mitochondrial DNA lineages are of ancient European rather than Middle Eastern origin, which is the opposite of the Ashkenazi Y chromosome picture. Southern European women may be the source of most of the admixture in Ashkenazi Jews.

Sheila said...

I got bitten by the genealogy bug about 18 months ago. It's interesting observing the movement and intermarriage of people over time (I in no way personalize, romanticize or idolize anyone's ancestors, which is another big problem in the amateur field). There are accurate records out there - at Ancestry, Family Search, and elsewhere, but Ancestry's transcription is godawful - I'm not at all surprised to learn some of their transcribers are Ugandan. Their search function is lousy as well. Used in combination with information from other sites, however, they're a handy platform and fairly reasonably priced.
As others have noted, the majority of trees online are absolute junk, with people attaching records willy-nilly. If you use a reasonable degree of care and professional research, you can come up with some surprising results. In trying to verify information about someone, it's useful to look into their siblings, and sometimes I get lost after finding the spouse of a sibling who married someone else whose name was . . . etc. The problem is, when I uncover definite, documented connections, there's no way to note them on Ancestry without adding them to my tree, even if they're not related (or only via marriage via marriage via wife of son of so and so). I've also found that about 95% of the time, people don't want to know that they've attached the wrong people. I've sent very carefully worded messages indicating that someone has the incorrect individual listed (or, more often, three or four people with the same name listed as one individual) and I've yet to get a response, let alone see a correction on the corresponding tree.

I just ignore the junk and do my best to be accurate and only link documented individuals. Where/when I attach a possible record or individual, I note it as such. I have over 7500 "hints" at Ancestry for people on my tree, most of which I ignore.

Anonymous said...

Ancestry.com is excellent if you use the "Old Search" mode and know how to refine your results.
Of course the submitted genealogies are often junk - how many times have I not found "children" listed who are older than their parents? Just use your brains, and you'll be fine.
But the newspaper sites are certainly the best for actual information about the lives of one's ancestors, for surely nothing is more absurd than "family histories" which are composed of little but names and dates.
Don't get obsessed about how far back you can get (the sure sign of the beginner). Rather pick a pair of great-great-grandparents and then trace all of their descendants; the results will teach you much more about the quality of both your genes and your wider social position. You'll be in the middle of a web, not merely dangling at the end of a line.

Anonymous said...

75 million random inbred bastards

Anonymous said...

Thank God for cousin marriage for alleviating the overpopulation crisis of the year 800 AD (from your pedigree collapse link - 281 trillion grandparents!)

Mr. Anon said...

Funny that he didn't mention one person who (according to his Wikipedia bio) is his cousin: totalitarian theorist Cass Sunstein.

countenance said...

A few weeks ago, I had a quixotic debate on a YouTube video thread with some crackpot. He tried to make the contention that the fact that almost all the Presidents are related to each other is indicative of some nefarious conspiracy. I tried to jump in and say that it's no conspiracy, it's what happens in a genuine nation, i.e. a very loosely related loosely inbred group of people.

It should not be surprising that in a true nation, the people chosen to be its heads of state would all be related to each other by at least distant cousinhood. That's because the people who voted for them (in case the political system is democratic) are also loosely related to each other by at least distant cousinhood, just as the heads of state are related to the people who voted for them.

I might as well have not wasted my keystrokes, the fool didn't get it.

Any two white Americans chosen at random could be, educated guess here, at least 12th cousins?

Sure, most of the Presidents have a lot of distant cousin relationships with each other. But they're not close relationships. To me, the only Presidential relationships to each other that matter are father-son Adams, father-son Bush, grandfather-grandson Harrison, second cousins James Madison and Zachary Taylor.