Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, February 29, 2016

What is genealogy?

The worldwide genealogical community has a huge spectrum of interests and objectives that almost defy any attempt at generalization. If you were to look at the demographics of the entire community, you would find people at almost any age, economic status or educational level involved. However, the online community, for many years now, has been composed primarily of women who are 55 years of age or older, have no children at home and who have at least a university of college degree. In fact, an appreciable percentage of the total genealogical community population have advanced university degrees. For example, only 13 or so of the over 73 bloggers who were Ambassadors at RootsTech 2016 were male.

Now, these observations have little to do with the subject of this post, but they do point out that when I discuss "genealogy" or when anyone talks about "family history" or "genealogy" they are addressing an undefined category of people who are involved in a loosely defined activity that includes everything from a highly technical subject such as DNA testing to the randomly defined activity of preserving stories and memories. We define genealogy so broadly that almost any activity is now defined as "genealogy." I just watched the first episode of an online TV show called the "Relative Race" on The idea of the show was that four teams of contestants race by driving from San Francisco to New York in 10 days with the goals of finding unknown relatives, completing challenges and avoiding elimination for a prize of $25,000. So this is genealogy in reality TV? The only thing these people had in common was a DNA test from that showed they were related to the people they were supposed to find. I am afraid that my idea of a "reality" program about genealogy would feature me sitting in front of a microfilm reader for four hours. However, this would not likely draw a sponsor or a $25,000 prize.

Let me try a definition of genealogy. Genealogy is the activity of identifying family relationships. Hmm. I think that probably includes DNA testing, but I am not sure it includes preserving stories and photos. Let me try again. Genealogy is the activity of identifying, documenting and preserving family relationships. Hmm. Do we exclude dogs and horses? OK, so here is another try. Genealogy is the activity of identifying, documenting and preserving human family relationships. Now I am troubled with the term "human family relationships." Presently, we are in the process of redefining the term "family" to include people who have no blood relationships and include a variety of animals and even plants. I am not sure if the modifier "human" excludes the animals and plants. Considering that many DNA tests include a percentage of genes from Neanderthal ancestors, I think we have a rather broad definition of "human" already. Why not include animals and plants?

Now that I think about it. I am bothered by the word "relationships." I am looking at a program called "Relative Finder" and I just discovered I am a 10th cousin 2 times removed to Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill and an 11th cousin 6 times removed to William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. What is an 11th cousin 6 times removed? If we are related to every human (???) on the planet then what is the point of doing genealogy. Why not just compile a "genealogy directory" that includes every person who ever lived and let the computer calculate how we are all related?

I am very well acquainted with the process of "extraction" as a "valid" genealogical process. This common practice among some genealogists addresses the problem of determining relationships in certain communities and makes the unsupported assumption that everyone with the same or similar surname in a community is somehow related. My great-grandmother collected every person in England and the United States she could find with the surname of "Linton" and spent her life trying prove how they were all related. She would have been overjoyed to have a technique such as DNA or the Relative Finder program to show her quickly that she really was related to all these people, if you just go back far enough in time.

As I have mentioned many times in the past, I have a version of my pedigree in Presently, I have over 100,000 smart matches. This means that there are people in my family tree that match people in other members with over 100,000 such correspondences. If I were going to participate in a TV reality show, such as Relative Race, I suppose I could drive anywhere in the country, randomly stop at a town and probably find a relative in a matter of a few minutes. I wouldn't even need DNA testing to do this. If I added in DNA testing, I could probably stop the next person I saw on the street and we would be related. This would be true if you believe all of my relatives who trace their pedigrees back to Adam. Hmm. I just thought of something. Are the Neanderthal relatives I have related to Adam? I do find from Relative Finder that I am a 10th cousin 6 times removed to Charles Robert Darwin.

Now another thought. Are all my Facebook friends now considered by "relatives?" If so, I could just friend the entire world and be finished with my genealogy. Wait a minute. Facebook is genealogy. I am sure there were a couple of classes at RootsTech that taught people about Facebook and genealogy. So, when I am reading about the latest cute cat photos on Facebook, I am really doing my genealogy. Wow, that sure simplifies my life. I can go back to Saturday morning cartoons and comic books.

So here goes another definition of genealogy. Genealogy is any activity that has anything to do with anyone who is or is not defined as human and who could possibly be related, even if such relationships cannot be proved or even theoretically postulated. Does that definition take into account that I am a 15th cousin 3 times removed to James Maitland Stewart, the movie star? Probably.


  1. We've both had a go at this question, James. It is likely that there is no single definition of the term; this is bad because it then becomes a subjective opinion.

    Whether we're interested in lineage, "families" (and extrapolating our homely concept to previous generations), family history, or micro-history (a term I prefer), it is all history. The converse argument is that history is about events, or famous people, but in what world is the separation of people's lives from the events surrounding them meaningful? Answer: academia.