Relations are relative things

By Chuck Sigars | Jun 12, 2013

In a recent article in the science magazine Nautilus, writer Veronique Greenwood warmed my heart, straightened my shoulders, and overall made me feel smug and smart. This is a nice trick, and I commend her.

What it did was affirm one of my longstanding opinions that was based on absolutely no scientific knowledge. In other words, I’ve felt this way for a long time, but now I have something to back up the feeling. This is GREAT.

Greenwood pointed out, convincingly and with evidence, that the fun a lot of people have exploring their personal genealogy is not necessarily anything more than a hobby, with no real statistical value.

Entitled “We Are All Princes, Paupers, and Part of the Human Family,” Greenwood shakes her own family tree a bit and then points out that this is mostly a romantic notion, not a scientific one.

“Most of the people you are descended from are no more genetically related to you than strangers are,” she writes.

But of course. What we imagined or speculated about in even the recent past is now more clear. Putting aside the differences between men and women (someone should write a book), all of us share 99.9 percent of our own personal genome with everybody else.

She also points out a study from 2004 suggesting that going back not to Mitochondrial Eve, living in Africa some 200,000 years ago, but only a couple of millennia will produce a theoretical ancestor to all of us.

That is, someone alive during the Roman Empire, or during the life of Jesus, is possibly the ancestor of all of us here today. Or none of us, depending.

By the way, have you ever noticed that some busts of the Roman emperor Nero look a lot like Ringo Starr? That could just be me. Still.

This only confirmed my boredom with genealogy, although I understand the pleasure people take from it. My mother has explored our family history for years, and even I’ll admit that it’s fun to look at and speculate about.

I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do with the information.

For example, a couple of years ago she discovered that we are distantly related to Benedict Arnold, which is interesting but irrelevant as far as I can tell.

Am I supposed to feel ashamed or guilty because in some trivial way I have a tenuous connection to a man whose name became synonymous with treason (unfairly in some respects, given that the American Revolution was not universally popular with, you know, Americans of the era)?

Or am I inclined to puff up with the knowledge that at least he did pretty well during the Battles of Saratoga?

Naw. I don’t care, nor can I think of any reason why I should. And if I think about that 0.1 percent of my genetic material that might be unique and possibly important, I won’t look any further than, say, my great-grandparents.

And only that if I’m interested in heart disease or male-pattern baldness. I’d get more information from my horoscope, and worth about as much.

Again, I understand the interest, and it’s fun to look at my family tree and imagine relationships and lives set against the backdrop of history. I just don’t take it that seriously, and now science backs me up.

On the other hand, I have horrible vision and I have a good idea of where to place the blame. Near-sightedness is something I share with my siblings, my mother, and various other close relatives.

And I obviously pay attention to big-ticket items such as cancer, heart disease, chemical dependency, and how much ice cream one person is supposed to eat at one time. This is important stuff, and genes play a role.

But if we’re talking about roles, and role models, and at least I am, I know where to look, and why.

I may not share my mother’s interest in genealogy, but I’ve lost track of the ways her influence drives the things I do on a daily basis, from the way I load the dishwasher to my efforts at being a good parent.

And along with a couple of excellent recipes, my mother passed on to me a love of music, particularly musical theater, without which it seems obvious to me that I never would have met my wife. Some things feel more important than genetic predisposition.

On the other hand, I tend to look at my father’s influence as more genetic (including absurdly good cholesterol levels, given the ice cream). He and I shared few personality traits, I think, although they crop up in surprising ways sometimes.

But nearly 10 years after his death, I still hear his voice in my head.

When I’m cutting corners, when I’m not doing my best, when I’m leaving some chore until another day. When I’m buying tools, or more rarely using them. In a million different ways, it seems, I’m still my father’s son, still listening and learning.

Father’s Day, then, is not what it was. I have no phone call to make, although I dearly wish I did. If you have the opportunity, I hope you take advantage of it. It’s always good to take note of where you come from, if only to understand how you got here.

And there’s a picture of Benedict Arnold that looks a lot like John Lennon. Just saying.

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