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

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The History of the Development of Genealogical DNA: Part Two: Looking Back into the Distant Past

A depiction of the Tree of Jesse from Leaf from Psalter, c. 1480. (Photo: Walters Art Museum/Public Domain)
Part Two: Looking Back into the Distant Past

Using DNA tests to supplement genealogical research may seem to be a hot new topic, but the histories of both genealogy and genetics date back long before Charles Darwin (b. 1809, d. 1882) wrote and published the On the Origin of Species. See the following:

Darwin, Charles, W. West, and Adam, fl. 1859? Holden. 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection,: or, The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street.

I will come back to my thoughts concerning On the Origin of Species later in this series, but this history goes back much further than Darwin or anyone in Western Europe. Of course, family relationships have existed since prehistoric times and are biologically based and core family units are evident in many animals. Every year, I watch new "families" of deer outside my office window and this reminds me of the multitude of such biologically based organizations in the world.

Almost all of the genealogies that purport to date back into antiquity were compiled and written long after the events and relationships depicted. Here is one explanation of the longest family tree from Wikipedia: Family Tree.
The longest family tree in the world is that of the Chinese philosopher and educator Confucius (551–479 BC), and he is the descendant of King Tang (1675–1646 BC). The tree spans more than 80 generations from him, and includes more than 2 million members. An international effort involving more than 450 branches around the world was started in 1998 to retrace and revise this family tree. A new edition of the Confucius genealogy was printed in September 2009 by the Confucius Genealogy Compilation Committee, to coincide with the 2560th anniversary of the birth of the Chinese thinker. This latest edition is expected to include some 1.3 million living members who are scattered around the world today. 
There are extensive genealogies for the ruling dynasties of China, but these do not form a single, unified family tree; and it is unclear at which point(s) the most ancient historical figures named become mythological.
The accuracy of these genealogies including the ones contained in the Bible is more a matter of belief than reliance on any demonstrable historical documentary sources. For example, the earliest handwritten copy of a portion of the text of the Bible date back to between 587-586 BCE (Before the Common Era). By the way, BCE and BC mean exactly the same thing. See Wikipedia: Biblical Manuscript. It should also be noted that these early genealogies almost uniformly preserve only one (almost exclusively male) line of descent. There are also extensive oral histories, some of which have been transcribed.

The issue of direct biological relationship has always existed. One social system that reflects this concern is primogeniture. The principle that inheritance falls most heavily and sometimes exclusively on the first-born male offspring is the basis for one of the dramatic incidents related in the Bible when Esau sells his birthright to Jacob. This preference for first-born male offspring is pervasive in Western European civilization and many other places throughout the world. Reliance on primogeniture is still a major issue today although there are several different types: absolute primogeniture, elective and agnatic primogeniture, and male-preference primogeniture.

Here is a short explanation of agnatic primogeniture from Wikipedia: Primogeniture.
Under agnatic primogeniture, or patrilineal primogeniture, the degree of kinship (of males and females) is determined by tracing shared descent from the nearest common ancestor through male ancestors. Those who share agnatic kinship (through solely male ancestors) are termed "agnates"; those whose shared lineage includes a female ancestor are "cognates". 
There were different types of succession based on agnatic primogeniture, all sharing the principle that inheritance is according to seniority of birth among siblings (compare to ultimogeniture) and seniority of lineage among the agnatic kin, firstly, among the sons of a monarch or head of family, with sons and their male-line issue inheriting before brothers and their issue. Females and female-line descendants are excluded from succession.
One issue that was a constant background to all inheritance concerns was the issue of legitimacy. Strangely, with regard to the royalty and nobility in Europe, many genealogists claim their ancestral lines through reputed illegitimate children.

Now I need to backtrack a little to the earliest writings on the subject of heredity from Hippocrates (400 B.C.) and Aristotle (350 B.C.) Both Aristotle and Hippocrates believed in the direct inheritance of "traits" through reproductive material given by the parents to their offspring. Here is a short summary of what both taught from the Biocyclopeia "Ideas of Hippocrates and Aristotle."
Hippocrates believed that characters are inherited from parents because reproductive material is handed over from all parts of the body of an individual.  
Aristotle could not agree with Hippocrates, because this could not explain inheritance of characters like nails, hairs, voice, grey hairs, etc., because most of these are dead tissues and could not have contributed to reproductive tissue. Aristotle also pointed out cases, where children may resemble their grandparents rather than their parents. He believed that reproductive material was not derived from different parts but from nutrient substances meant for different parts and diverted to reproductive path. These nutrient substances would differ depending upon different parts for which they are meant. He also believed that female sex contributed something to define the form of the embryo (like the carpenter's job is not to supply the wood, but to give shape to the wood to form a chair).
 Interestingly, many people still adhere to a quasi-Aristotelian view that specific physical characteristics are inherited from certain ancestors as in "he has his father's nose." It may well be that the size and shape of a person's nose is an inherited trait but obviously, from our modern standpoint, the way this occurs is vastly different than the view held by Aristotle.

Unfortunately, Aristotle's views were still prevalent into the 19th Century.

Next Ethnicity and race.

See this previous post:

Part One:

1 comment:

  1. Hey!
    Love your blog,Just wanted to reach out to say a big thank you for what you’ve been publishing lately.

    On top of my genealogy, I’ve been using my data from 23andMe and Ancestry to do more with my DNA and gain insights into what is right for me in terms of my health nutrition.
    I was able to upload my data to Gini and get a lot of free reports.
    Or just visit

    Also their food lens is awesome. You should check it out. They encyrypt and deidentify all data and don't share it with third parties - so if you value your privacy, definitely take a looksie.

    Keep up the awesome work 🙂