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

Monday, March 23, 2020

Reflections on Genealogy in the year of the Pandemic 2020

As I have observed a number of times in the past, genealogy is a solitary pursuit. Social distancing is a catchphrase that has been coined to describe what many genealogists have been practicing for years. The main effect of the current pandemic on my personal lifestyle is that what little interpersonal social contact I had before has now been decreased to almost zero. For example, I have been asked hundreds of times if I ever sleep. Well, here I am again in the middle of the night typing away. I think genealogists must have a lot in common with prolific writers and if you are both a writer and a genealogist, you are probably somewhat like me and don't really care about the time of day. If you are awake and not sick, you write or do genealogy or both.

As pandemics go, this one has the potential to at least go down in history, if only for the reason that it is having such a tremendous social and economic effect. Most of the really large pandemic situations in our human history have probably gone unrecorded and ignored by historians simply due to a lack of records. Does that sound like a genealogically familiar theme? When was the last time you ran out of records to answer a genealogical question? But this particular pandemic has the potential to affect you personally even if you never get sick or die. For instance, you may lose your job.

In the seventh grade, everyone in my class had to learn a poem called "If" by Rudyard Kipling. Here is one short quote from the longer poem.
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, 
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
I have long since decided that most of what is expressed in that poem is hogwash, but some of the attitudes do spill over into sitting all day (and night) at a computer and writing or doing research.

Of course, the advantage that I gained by moving to Provo, Utah and living close to the Brigham Young University Library including the Family History Library and also living reasonably close to the Salt Lake City, Utah Family History Library has mostly evaporated with the closing of both institutions, I still have high-speed internet from Google Fiber and a fast computer and I can still do a lot of research.

By the way, if the graph at the beginning of this post doesn't catch your attention, you need to think about the idea of exponential growth. There is an ancient story that goes along with this called "The Rice and the Chessboard." This short story illustrates exactly what happens when a quantity is involved in an exponential growth curve. Here is a link to one version of the story from a blog post that is nicely illustrated. What is important to understand about exponential growth is that in real-life instances, the growth is not perfectly regular like the progression in the number of rice grains. You can see that the graph above has some anomalies. It is not a perfect curve. Another version of the same graph when plotted as a curve looks more regular. Here is another view from the Johns Hopkins Map that is a little more regular.
Is there some part of genealogy that looks like this curve? Yes, of course. There is a graph in a blog post from Blaine Bettinger, The Genetic Genealogist in a post entitled, "How Much of Your Family Tree Do You Know? And Why Does That Matter?" that looks a lot like the one from Johns Hopkins University. The similarity comes from the increase in the quantity measured over an increase in time (or some other measurement). In other words, anytime something changes over time in an increasingly larger amount, there is a way to show that increase with a curve. The math really gets more complicated than that rather quickly but that is the general idea. By the way, most of the efforts by different countries to counter the effects of the pandemic focus on trying to flatten the curve because the curve will always ultimately lead to 100% saturation of any population meaning that 100% of the population, give or take a few outliers, will get the virus.

Why is this a concern of genealogy other than the historical impact the pandemic will have on the availability of records about individuals in the future? Well, we all live with our own ancestral exponential curve and we can only deal with it by ignoring it. Literally. We have to ignore the fact that the number of our direct line ancestors theoretically doubles every generation or we will go crazy trying to work on all those lines.

Fortunately, there is a very important principle involved that decreases the actual potential number of ancestors any one person can possibly have. That principle is called "pedigree collapse." This simply means that your ancestors, out of necessity, married their cousins and so the theoretical number of ancestors is not infinite by collapses into reverse over time and the actual extended curve looks more like a bell curve than an exponential curve. Actually, the curve is called a Directed Acyclic Graph.

Eventually, the Coronavirus will run its course and the graph will level off and then decline as there are fewer and fewer people who are either immune or dead. But it is quite interesting that working on genealogy is something like managing a pandemic.

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