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

Friday, September 17, 2010

No absolutes in genealogy

People's lives are inherently messy, no matter how short or how long and trying to completely quantify a life is probably unattainable. Even huge biographies, like Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln do not do justice to a life. So what can we hope to accomplish as genealogists? How much information is enough? Where do we stop? Or do we ever stop in collecting information? If you are like me, you will always believe that there is one more document and one more place to look. The surprising thing is, that this is usually and almost always correct. There always is at least one more document and at least one more place to look. In the sense that the information we obtain is never absolute, that is complete, without qualification and totally unconditioned, given this definition no genealogical research can be absolute.

In that sense, there is also always some additional information that may be available to be known.  There may be one more place to research and look, if we only had the time and resources. Before we even approach some absolute, we recognize that are time and space limitations on our ability to obtain additional information.  Of course, from a practical standpoint, you can't keep finding new and unexplored documents about people in the very distant past. The documents might exist, but finding them without unlimited resources becomes an extremely remote possibility. But in any event, you can never assume that you have reached some absolute end of the available records or information that might be gleaned from another source.

It is this open ended nature of genealogy (and history) that keeps some types of people from becoming involved in research. They cannot stand messiness and they abhor incompleteness. Let's face it, they probably are correct in staying away from historical research.

When I am talking about absolutes, I am not referring to the framework of events made up of dates and places. In one sense, an event may be an absolute. It may have happened at a particular place and at a particular time. But knowing that a person was born in a certain place at a certain time is not absolute knowledge about the birth. All you need to do is listen to a discussion about a new baby by members of the mothers family and you will immediately recognize that knowing the date and place can be very far from reporting absolutely all of the information about the birth.

It is understandably true that nearly all of the vast and specific information about an event begins to be lost as soon as the moment passes. We are limited to that small portion of the total event that is recorded in some way either intentionally or unintentionally.

So what does this mean to me, an average researcher? It means that all information about a family or individual is tentative. Quoting from the mathematician Yuri Manin, "A proof only becomes a proof after the social act of "accepting it as a proof."  To paraphrase, we prove an event only when we accept the amount of information about the event as sufficient in the context of our society of researchers. For some, a single date is enough and they can stop looking. For others, no information is sufficient to close the investigation because the researcher recognizes that there are no absolutes in genealogy.


  1. Good post. Especially agree with your final thought, about a single date being enough for some, yet for others there is never enough information. I believe I've started with the former, now moving towards the latter in my research.

  2. Genealogy is a journey, not a destination.