Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Genealogy and Genetics

I’ve just finished this book, The Juggler’s Children.  It has certainly got the genealogist in me stirred up, wanting to get researching once again.  The book gets its name from the author’s pursuit of information on her paternal great-grandfather, apparently a Chinese juggler.  Although this one man gets her started, she also ends up pursuing family ties in India, England and Jamaica as well.  Once research gets rolling, it can literally lead you anywhere—how much more exciting does research get?

The author, Carolyn Abraham, is a science writer who details her experience into personal genetic research combined with old fashioned interviewing of family and potential family as well as searching the paper and ink records.  One of my friends asked me years ago to participate in National Geographic’s genetic project, but for some reason I was not at all interested at the time.  I may have to re-visit that decision in light of this book.  After all, we have some rumours of North American Indian blood in the family and there is one man in our Danish line of ancestry whose name whispers “Russian” to me.  Perhaps we do have mysteries that we can tango with through DNA.

I was particularly struck by one passage in the book:
“I asked Adrian why he thought so many people—people who might never have spent a minute researching their ancestry—felt suddenly compelled to find genetic relatives.  ‘We’re lonely,’ he said flatly. ‘Families are so fractured, and we’re all caught up in this rat race and in the process we kind of lost our identities.  I’d much rather talk to a cousin I never knew I had than to a complete stranger.  We don’t want to be so lonely anymore.’”
 Shades of Kurt Vonnegut and his book Slapstick, where everyone is to be assigned a middle name: a random natural object and a random number.  Anyone who shares your object is a cousin and anyone who shares the object and number is a sibling.  Thus community is created.  Lonesome no more!

I have spent time tracking down distant cousins.  I have cold-called complete strangers with the “right” surname in ancestral areas.  I remember having tea and muffins in Moncton with a very lonely elderly woman, who gratefully shared all the family information that she knew in exchange for an afternoon visit.  I’ve prowled cemeteries in New Brunswick with various shirt-tail relatives, looking for the gravestone of a missing great-grandfather (we found it because a distant cousin was dating the grounds keeper of the cemetery and he consulted the plot plan for us).  En route to another cemetery, I was assured by a many-times-distant cousin that “the land owner knows my car and so he won’t shoot.”  I’ve been given privileged access in an archive on the say-so of a distant cousin.  The bond forms quickly.

Genealogy is addictive—it is mysterious, as you use family legends as a starting point to discover the paper trail.  You are always open to hearing another family story and following up any clues you may divine from it.  You plan your vacations around visits to archives, libraries and burial grounds.  Facts are assembled, compared, analyzed, all in an attempt to figure out where to look next.  And the stories are fascinating.  The people, by and large, are warm and welcoming.  We really do like to talk to “cousins we never knew we had.”  It’s fun to share stories and figure where the intersections are and if we are very similar or quite different and yet still Family.

The other things that strikes me about this genetic research is the extent to which we all share genetic material.  No one is “pure” anything.  It truly proves that racism is just chasing your own tail—completely pointless.  I read in one genealogy text that if you go back 30 generations, we should each have millions of ancestors.  But there weren’t that many people in all of Europe back then, so if you have European ancestors, you are not only related to royalty, but you are also connected to every swineherd.
The genetic tests are not miracles—they may just open certain research avenues and discourage us from others.  But I think I may have to venture into this new game and see where my DNA takes me. 

No comments:

Post a Comment