The NYT piece “Are you my cousin?” promotes crowd-sourcing and crowd-authoring for genealogy work, others can edit your charts, you can edit other charts, and the goal is to develop family links rather than to be sure the links are accurate.
This is sadly reminiscent of Mormon genealogists who have on many occasions responded to me and others by saying it’s more important to be connected than to be sure of the connection–when they aren’t lying about how accurate/friendly/helpful the church is. Especially, when the goal of the LDS has been to save all people dead or alive and hey if you can include someone in your family tree you can save that soul. Of course not everyone wants to be saved mormon-style, but like for most wicked wagers, inclusion beats integrity.
While anthro’s and socio’s have praised titles like, cousin, uncle, aunt, and brother as a way of extending empathy beyond immediate family, I don’t think it’s such a good idea. Most violence is committed against family members and most rapes are by people you know. Being close or being family doesn’t really exclude violence and theft from the circle of family love. We feel more safe harming those close to us. Wars have never been shy about splitting up families into generational distaste. While I do find it appealing to call everyone cousin I doubt it greatly affects peace and after awhile I would be annoyed that I would have to call Joe Theasshole who hates me my cousin.
The human propensity to use nearness to greatness as a means of elevating personal status is not helpful. Being related to a famous person only has genetic merit if they are close to you. Ego propping by claiming to be related to someone you admire is so tempting because it’s so cool–so much so that lying and exaggeration is normal.
Too often people will lie to prove connection or lie to prove disconnection. That’s the other side. Little Johnny or Jill may not actually be blood related in the right way or at all and this news could be upsetting to others in the family. Cheating spouses have long tried to hide their affairs. Accurate, DNA-driven (if necessary), genealogy breaks the lie, as does often good research.
In my family, the hitch in genealogy has been a James Watkins who was a laborer for John Smith, exchanged as prisoner (hostage, collateral) for food. There is no linkage and proof that any other Watkins in the country are related to him. We have no idea how he died or if he married. Yet, many, many people, have tried to make that connection to prove the first Watkins came with John Smith. So much so articles have been written, notably by William and Mary, to detail how there just isn’t sufficient evidence to make that claim.
Most likely the first US Watkins was Henry Watkins who showed up in the states a decade later and even though a captain, and even though many people have tried they can’t connect him to the UK (Wales) precisely but with a little fudging there the family goes all the way back to William the Conquerer–and of course one can always go sideways through an Aunt or Uncle and that does work claim some small share of the gene pool. Eg, I can’t claim to be descended fro Henry Clay but I am directly related to his mother Elizabeth Watkins so good old HC would have been a half-brother
My Great Grandmother who was in the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) wished very badly to prove that her new husband was also of long lineage in the US through a different line. She bent over backwards and made a jump to prove it was so. The same has happened with George Washington and Pocahontas–people will make any kind of connection absolute to gain the connection. I mean how cool would it be to be related to GW, MLK, or Gandhi? Hmmm. Perhaps we shouldn’t worship this desire.
That’s the problem. It’s just too cool. The danger to exaggerate and lie is too much. Our penchant for hero worship overcomes the egalitarianism of “all my relatives.” The desire to have a connection to famous people is too much like the desire to be of god-like origins and extends the personal agency bias too far.
I have to say that genealogy has been liberating for minorites that feel disenfranchised from their snobbish neighbors. That Jefferson had sexual relations and children from a slave (slaves) has been excellent for showing how racism works and how slaves are irrevocably woven into the fabric of our society
I wouldn’t dismiss genealogy but it should be accurate. Otherwise we’re no better than historical liars that say history should have been this way–which is of no help at all.