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FAQ - What is the point of family trees? (Snobbery, etc.)

by Mark Humphrys.


"What is the point of making out your family tree? What are you trying to prove? Are you implying you are superior or something?" These are valid questions that occur to people when they see family trees. And they are not helped by the snobbery and wishful-thinking of many who do engage in the pursuit.

Other people complain that proving someone descends from, say, Edward III through a long chain of people is meaningless - not only will they not have inherited a single piece of property, papers, or even the vaguest family stories, attitudes or behaviour from him, but they may not have even inherited a single gene from him. e.g. See [Kingman, 1999] for this type of criticism.

I thought I'd write a few words in defence of genealogy.

It's precise.

First off, yes, in a way genealogy is kind of pointless. It doesn't come up with profound theories of society and historical change like mainstream history does. But in fact that's why I like it. I like it because its results are small, hard, falsifiable facts, not grand sweeping theories of history that are hard to disprove, and are accepted or not depending on your general temperament and politics. It is meaningless but precise.

It keeps the pace.

I also often prefer genealogy to history because genealogy gives you a real sense of the pace at which time passes. Genealogy forces you to move through history in steps of 20-30 years, generation after generation, filling in every step. Whereas history often compresses or "telescopes" time, so that two hundred years in the medieval period is covered in far less space than two hundred years in the modern period.

We know very well that we need a lot of generations to get from 1720 to 1950. Genealogy reminds us that we need exactly the same number of generations to get from 1220 to 1450. It forces us to pick our way step by step through those long unchanging medieval years.

You can imagine what a real, step-by-step genealogy of the last 5 million years (since divergence from our last common ancestor with any other living species) would look like. With page after page of tedious progression, it would be a lot more eloquent than simply trying to explain large numbers.

It's original.

I also like genealogy because it is a way for the non-professional to do original research. No matter how enthusiastic you are about the English Civil War, or the Regency, the amateur will never actually say anything new about these topics, or contribute anything that can't be read in a book off the shelf. Even for the professional historian, to say anything really new and meaningful about Shakespeare, or the Battle of Waterloo, is a daunting task (and one reason why I did not do a PhD in history). Only in local history and family history can you get a clear run, can you become the first person to discover something. Everyone should specialise, and the amateur, instead of doing his own half-baked biography of Henry VIII or Winston Churchill, should do the village where he grew up, and the family he was born into, if he really wants to contribute something to the world.

And in fact, while most genealogy is meaningless but precise, the overall patterns do have meaning. For example, my Royal Descents of famous people list is slowly building up a vivid illustration of how interconnected the world really is, and how in a sense all tribes and nations are fictional constructs. It is vivid because it actually puts names on people, and shows every step of the way how blood from any source, no matter how supposedly "elite", can end up years later in almost any destination at all.

It's messy. It's very messy.

Which brings us on to the last point - the snobbery of people who think that they ought to be proud of their ancestors. Nothing could be more absurd. Your ancestors were the same mix of bullies, fools, bigots, incompetents, cowards, and occasional smart and admirable people that always make up society. You exist because of many people who you would despise if you met them. Genealogy is about finding out who they were, it should have no interest in whether they were admirable or not. Indeed, it's more fun when they murder each other, marry descendants of their ancestors' bitter enemies, conceive your ancestor as a result of sordid and regretted affairs, die before their child is born, and so on. It makes us realise how precarious our existence is, and how messy and unlikely our genetic inheritance. Anyone who believes they belong to one race, or that their ancestors were fine people, hasn't done enough genealogy.

This is especially true when applied to the nobility and royalty, who are often the only ancestors you are left with in the more distant past. Why should you admire some noble, or take their side, just because you descend from them? The nobility of the past were often no more than the most successful robbers, stealing other people's land, and living off other people's work. They weren't Appointed By God, but were the survivors of a long process of selection among the most aggressive and best-organised Strong Men, aided by the greatest thieves of them all, the Royal family.

No, the desire for a Royal Descent is quite different. It's because most of us exist in little islands of peasants and farmers, interconnected to each other but to no one else, and for all we know we would still exist no matter what had happened in mainstream history in the big world outside. And the only way to break out of this island is to find a connection to one of these Strong Men, after which things explode and history becomes full of events on which our existence provably depends. The peer, the heiress, the gent, the precious link to the World Family Tree, is your goal, but to expect to actually like him or her, or be proud of them, is to rather miss the point.



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