Families in Trees

Genealogy is one of those things that’s fascinating as long as it’s yours.  It’s not hard to lose a few (or many) hours, trying to find ancestral connections.  When someone you don’t know begins to tell you, however, about other people you’ve never heard of, your eyes begin to glaze over.  My wife kindly gave me a gift of a local genealogy class that we attended the other day.  Along with some dozen others we gathered to learn some tricks of the trade.  The presenter began by having us introduce ourselves, “briefly.”  It’s a dangerous move in a genealogical crowd.  A few of our fellow students went into great detail about their ancestors, forgetting, for the moment, that we were there to learn how to do the research, not to find out about their families.  It’s a natural enough mistake.

None of us ask to be born, and we spend our lives wondering why we are here.  How did our parents meet?  Where were they from?  What did they do?  And the generation before that?  Some time ago I figured out that, due to the exponential nature of ancestors, that by the time you get back to just eight “greats” before for your grandparents, it took over a thousand people to make you.  It boggles the mind.  Suddenly it seems as if there would never be enough chance encounters or arranged marriages or tumbles in the hay for you to ever get here.  So many ancestors!  By the time I was in college I’d managed to trace it back to almost sixteen family names.  I was able to break through a barrier on this just over a year ago when talking to some family members about a lost ancestor at the turn of the twentieth century.  Genealogy is a search for meaning.

Both my wife and I share this interest.  Of the dozen or so others at the session, four others were married couples.  Almost all of us had done the voluntary DNA test to find our nations of origins—to confirm or deny family stories.  And that’s what it’s really about: stories.  Although we may be squeamish about some aspects, we want to know where we came from, the story of how we arrived here.  As if there’s some cosmic clue in it that gives us information on why we’re here.  It brought several of us out on a February afternoon.  We didn’t know each other.  If we traced back far enough, however, we would have found we were all related.  We are all family.

On Jordan’s Stormy Bank

All you have to do is spit in the cup. Well, you have to do it quite a few times, but that’s the basic idea. Then you send the contents to a religiously motivated lab and your genetic ancestry will be emailed back to you. (There will be a fee involved, of course.) Genetics, a science of which Darwin didn’t have the benefit, is capable of mapping out where various “races” originated and ended up. Enter the Bible. One of the most disputed groups among scholars of the ancient Near East is the Canaanites. There was, as far as we can tell, no “nation” called “Canaan.” No people called themselves “Canaanites” but the term was used by others to designate them. Yahweh had a vendetta against them and ordered them wiped out. And, according to parts of the Bible, the Israelites acquiesced. So where are the Canaanites?

Image credit: http://maps.bpl.org, via Wikipedia Commons

According to a Washington Post article by Ben Guarino, DNA sequencing has revealed that they’re still there. This should come as no surprise to most anthropologists. Racial purity is always partially a myth, since “race” is no barrier to love. Or at least lust. And genetic traits don’t lie. Tracing ancient DNA from “Canaanite” (I’m getting myself scared using all these scare quotes) burials, scientists have discovered the biblical nemesis still survives in abundance, especially in Lebanon. Interestingly, on a cultural level, there is no distinction between Israelite and Canaanite. They are virtually identical. This creates one of the many embarrassments for biblical scholars, since the differences should be more than just skin deep. As with so many cases of racial distinction, the reality is mostly imagination.

Literalists, of course, have been in a rear-guard position for well over a century now, so the news should cause minimal shock. The problem will be keeping them from finding new excuses to carry out an extinct mandate. Biblical scholars, that heathenish race, long ago capitulated with the enemy. You’d expect no less from those who would dare use reason when approaching Holy Writ. It’s the real-world application that’s a problem. What do you do when the biblical enemy is found, hiding in plain sight like a purloined Lebanon? The solution might be as old as the story itself. Darwin didn’t have genetics, but he did have the Bible. The issue in the nineteenth century was what to reject when worldviews clashed. The answer was to jettison the godless science. We can only hope that this time-honored technique will prevent future crusades fomented by scientific discovery.

All Relative

Among the most compelling questions raised by consciousness is “where am I from?” Humans are a species of widely traveled individuals and despite the fiction that we all derive from happily married couples, we often end up distant from our relatives. Over time we may forget who they were. Our descendants, however, may be very curious. I have spent some time, over the years, climbing my family tree. It’s endlessly fascinating because you find that the research is about people’s stories, not just who was coupling with whom. Those of us of non-American ancestry who live in America often wonder how we came to be here. Families preserve stories, and sometimes those stories are embellished over time. I’ve spent more than an afternoon or two in county clerks’ offices thumbing through records to try to push things back just one more generation. Who were these people who led to me?

The Mormons, among other aspects of their theology, have contributed greatly to genealogical research. It is an American religion indeed. My family recently gave me a DNA tracing kit, run by ancestry.com, as a gift. Although it wouldn’t answer all the questions about my background, I suspected it would either confirm or deny some of the stories. The results just came in, and, amazingly, family stories were right about on the mark. I’ve always called myself an “American mutt” but it would have been more accurate to say a “northern European mutt.” Mostly Germanic, English, and Irish, I fit into the typical early settler paradigm. There are minor traces in there that I’m not sure I understand, maybe less than one or two percent—some Asian, some African. All of this will take more research. You never really find out who you are. Completely.

Image credit: Zephyris, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Zephyris, Wikimedia Commons

DNA testing is the stuff of science. It isn’t a precise science in that it can’t tell the stories of those ancestors. It takes family tradition to do that. I know that one Irish ancestor stowed away on a ship and she arrived in America not as a paying passenger. I know another branch came as a German engineer and his wife, and that their son opened a bakery. Some of the branches have been here since the Revolutionary War, but they were also germanic—were we Hessians? I haven’t had time to read through all that the Mormons have discovered about me, but I’ve got a pretty good idea that family tradition hasn’t failed me here. While the stories can’t themselves be confirmed by the science, they are not inconsistent with the results. And when it comes to finding out who’s your daddy, the answer really depends on how far back you look.

Doubt No Alleles

Image credit: Zephyris, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Zephyris, Wikimedia Commons

DNA. Is there anything it can’t do? For many decades anthropologists have built painstaking methods to trace developments in human culture. Those of us who’ve studied linguistics in any fashion remember well the many times instructors corrected our false cognates and pointed out family trees of languages that showed who came from whom, based on subtle shifts of orthography or some other aspect of philology. Entire careers could be made in ancient Near Eastern studies by shuffling around the way words were formed and speculating about how they influenced one another. Then DNA. A recent story in the New York Times demonstrates that DNA studies now tell us whence came the Europeans. Among the three groups that eventually settled in Europe were agriculturalists from the Near East, coming along at just about the same time as the Sumerians show up in southern Iraq. They joined the hunter-gatherers already in situ. Their languages, however, did not dominate as a third group, from western Russia showed up and gave (according to DNA) many of the groups their base languages. And here I thought Latin and Greek and Anglo-Saxon had something to do with it.

No doubt we’ve benefitted much from learning about DNA. We can fight diseases that were mysterious, if not divine, in previous centuries. We can learn how closely we’re related to other animal species, or even the neighbor next door. Sneaky fathers can be determined with a precision that sometimes puzzles, such as the recent story of twins who had different biological fathers. Without DNA such a thing could only have been a myth. I wonder, however, what we’re losing in terms of humanity. I suppose we’ll still need a few archaeologists to dig up the remains for scientists to date. And many traditional cultures will still insist that the human remains uncovered be reinterred and not probed and prodded, even after death. We’ll call them backward and superstitious. We’ll consult the genome and decide who to marry.

Meanwhile some hopeless romantic will insist on sitting off in a corner and composing sonnets to the woman he irrationally loves. Looking at the nighttime sky, he may compare her to the beauty of the moon. We know it is a lifeless rock trapped in our own gravity, mechanically reflecting the light of a burning ball of hydrogen and helium 93 million miles away. And if she’ll run this cotton swab across the inside of her cheek we might well be able to tell if she’s a good choice for mating purposes. We’ll also be able to determine the origins of her ancestors and remove a great deal of the mystery about her—there! Won’t that be better than having to woo her and find all that out for yourself? And when your children grow up you’ll point them to the STEM disciplines, since that is the only direction in which there is any human future. And the anthropologists can join scholars of religion as we wait for someone to put the soup in our bowls.

Theory of Everything

Over the weekend my wife pointed out an interesting story on MSNBC pointing out that superstitious beliefs are becoming more common. While reason may dictate that as it becomes more obvious that reason explains everything the supernatural will fade from the human explanatory repertoire. Instead, scientists are using reason to explain why this does not appear to be happening. Many neuroscientists suggest that something in the brain predisposes us to believe, while other scientists suggest it may be in the DNA. For whatever reason, we are inclined to believe in outside agency.

The article is an introduction to the book Paranormal America by Christopher Bader and Carson Mencken. I’ve read some of Bader’s work before and it is admirable for its balance. He tends not to judge the phenomena but raises the question why people believe what is, frankly, often unbelievable. What stands out in such discussions is that religion is often classed separately from the “paranormal.” Paranormal is generally anything outside the accepted bounds of science. Supernatural, apparently, is anything that makes blatant claims to be outside the reach of science. With recriminations frequently flying both directions, I suggest maybe a reworking of definitions might be in order. Science, by definition, can explain all phenomena that exist. Supernatural, by definition, cannot be quantified. Too many mutually exclusive truths.

For many decades many scientists have been seeking a grand unified theory, something that explains everything. This they hope to do without recourse to the supernatural. When they arrive at this theory or formula, predictably, those who believe God is bigger than all this will claim that God is simply outside the system. Perhaps the net needs to be widened. We know that we humans do not possess the keenness of senses that our animal friends have. Various creatures see, heard, smell, taste and touch with such exquisite sensitivity that we can only be jealous. Some can sense magnetic fields, while some flowers follow the sun without the benefit of any eyes. We, in our presumption, think we see and measure all that is to be seen and measured. Hamlet would disagree. I can’t wait to read Bader and Mencken’s book, but I’m inclined to think that even when a grand unified theory arises there will still be room for philosophers, and maybe even theologians.

Not My Daddy!

They spy each other across a crowded room. He sure is big: barrel-chested and even a bit brutish. She’s cultured and refined, but there’s no denying that spark…

Today’s issue of Science announces the startling news that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens once interbred. The theological implications are enormous. I used to tell my students that the earliest evidence of religion falls not only among the artifacts of the Cro-Magnon branch of the hominid tree, but also among the remains of Neanderthals. If they had religion, and if they weren’t “human,” what happened to their souls when they died? I received a lot of puzzled looks from seminarians and more than one or two angry stares. The Bible, after all, claims that each was made according to its own kind. Seems like Adam and Eve might have been sleeping around with the non-Eden set. Looks like we’re in for another theological conundrum!

Neanderthals and Homo sapiens diverged once the human lineage left Africa, but once they met in a smoky Paleolithic bar, well, nature took over once again. And if these two hominid species interbred, who is to say what went on back in the days of Lucy? What happened in prehistory stays in prehistory, religions must needs proclaim. If we are honest with the evidence, our bonobo cousins share ancestors so do they share souls?

Some of the present human race, according to the DNA evidence, is walking around with Neanderthal blood, while others are not. I suppose gene sequencing might reveal which camp you are in. Will there be a Church of the Neanderthals? And will non-Neanderthals be allowed to share communion? And were the founders of the world’s great religions all Cro-Magnon or not? If they were of a slightly differences species, can I still join? Theologians, it is time to grab your pencils!

Maybe your dad, but not mine!

Who’s Your Mummy?

Yet another paternity suit appears in the news as promiscuous fathers try to slink off into the pages of history. This time, however, the kid is famous and his father will bask in reflected glory. Scientists in Egypt have been doing DNA tests on King Tutankhamun, “King Tut,” to determine the father of this most famous of pharaohs. Nor is this an idle bit of trivia, since it may rightfully be claimed that American interest in ancient Egypt was born with the discovery of Tut’s tomb in 1922. Art Deco styles began to emulate ancient Egypt, and even skyscrapers in Manhattan incorporated pharaonic stylings. If it weren’t for Tut’s wealth, this experiment wouldn’t garner any public interest at all.

Tut's famous visage from Wikipedia Commons

In a classic case of ancient meets modern, the paltry wealth of Tutankhamun’s burial dazzled American imaginations. Here was a guy who matched the American dream – young, exceptionally wealthy (by even today’s standards), and powerful. Not just a metaphorical god, but a literal one as well. And yet his kingdom was troubled. Was it his father (Amenhotep IV, aka Akhenaten) who launched Egypt into turmoil with an unwanted religious revolution? The state reacted strongly, foundering under this uniformity of a religion that many couldn’t accept. Young Tut was forced to recant, if he hadn’t already rejected the reforms of his predecessor, back to the “old time religion” of eternal Egypt.

We may not know for sure who his father was, but King Tut remains a symbol of the power of religion. Ancient and modern believers alike ascribe strongly to their perceptions of the true religion. No one knowingly accepts a false religion. The truth claims of religions are sometimes mutually exclusive. What seems to have brought about the collapse of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt was the insistence on a religion not widely accepted, but enforced by the government. Considering the religious outlook of the James Dobsons, Pat Robertsons and Sarah Palins of our own political landscape, such a collapse becomes comprehensible. Religion must be allowed its freedom to be sincere. Those who believe only because forced to do so will soon place their own child king on the throne, regardless of whom his father might have been.