Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Steven Pinker places "our weird obsession with genealogy" in a biological context in his new article up at The New Republic. It's interesting, but I find it less so than had he focused on genealogy within a particular American context.

Americans are simply more interested in genealogy than most other people in the world. In part, this is because we are an immigrant nation. Most people really aren't sure of their roots.

But there are other factors as well. First, the Mormons. Because Mormons want to trace all of their members roots back to biblical times, they are intense genealogists. More than any other individual groups, they have made genealogy accessible and popular to all Americans, since they open their databases up to the public.

What I think is most fascinating though is how Americans feel the need to validate their own status through their families. I should disclose here that I really hate genealogy. Not only is it annoying to tell someone that you are a historian and have them come back with a discussion of their family, but it is also largely fabrication and self-selective truths. Pinker quotes Oprah saying, "Knowing your family history is knowing your worth." Why? What in the living hell difference does it make if you are somehow related to Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass or Susan B. Anthony? How does that make you a better person? And what about all of your drunken, criminal relatives? Where's the bums, wife beaters, and drug addicts? Why is that not just as much part of your worth as your dubious connection with James Madison?

The answer is that Oprah and other genealogists are just wrong. Your family history has no connection with your worth. Your worth comes from your personal actions. Those actions are affected by your family history, no doubt. If you grew up in Watts, rural West Virginia, or Pine Ridge, you have significant social and cultural disadvantages to some rich white kid from Beverly Hills. But I'm also not saying that your worth is determined by how much money you make, what kind of car you drive, or even if you manage to stay out of the criminal justice system. Rather, given the cards life has dealt you, do you try to do right by people? That matters so, so much more than the fact that your great-grandmother once had tea with Gertrude Stein.