Life is about replication. Don’t replicate and you’re out of life’s future man. Pass along your dna and there will be a little part of you running around in future generations. A biological history with your name on it written in every cell.
I am an evolutionary dead-end. A failure at replication. My dna is not being passed along and there will never be any little “me”s running around. My unique molecular fingerprint erased from existence.
Meh, so what? There’s no guarantee that your children would have children, and their children would have children, and so on and so forth. And anyway, your genetic material gets spliced and mixed and sooner or later it isn’t recognisable anyway. It isn’t long before future generations don’t tell stories about you any more. Everyone gets forgotten. Well, yes and no. Lets take a meandering path through genetic testing, genealogy, and contemporary human behaviour to examine those ideas.
I recently had my genes tested with 23andme. I wanted to know whether I had any genetic health time bombs in my future and I was also curious about the ancestry side. Heck, I’m a big fan of all science that explains the what and the how of the universe. I want to know how I got here!
My ancestry analysis was rather interesting and different than I expected. Above is a speculative ancestry composition, suggesting that many of my ancestors were from elsewhere in Europe. Curiosity (and possibly Brexit) made me wonder whether I could identify any of these other European ancestors in my family tree. I also noticed that of my nearly 700 dna matches on 23andme, many of the closest ones appeared to have a Romany connection and must therefore relate to my maternal grandmother. To increase my chances of finding other matches I uploaded my raw dna results to a service called Gedmatch. I also started to construct a family tree working from a very limited knowledge about my family history.
Using Gedmatch has been very interesting, and with help from some of my new-found distant cousins I’ve been able to fill gaps in my tree that I would never have been able to without that genetic knowledge. Of my top 20 matches there, almost all relate to my extensive Romany ancestors and I match hundreds more Romany descendants! In fact thus far, I’ve only identified two other relatives who relate to a different ancestor, my maternal grandfather. On another site my closest match is Swedish with a Danish family history. I have no idea how this fits in – her family is very well-to-do, whereas my family history is not at all!
And that leads me nicely on to some thoughts about personal legacy stemming from my explorations of genetics and genealogy. I have thousands of legitimate dna matches from all across the world. I’ve conversed with some of them, many of whom are searching for the answers to “who am I”? Especially those who have been adopted, but also those looking to research ancestors and document cousins whether for their own curiosity or perhaps a sense of duty. I’m a member of a Facebook group of over 150 individuals who are related through dna and helping each other to work out their complex trees. The idea of your genes living on after you have died is quite powerful when you see all those matches. Go far enough back in time and our ancestors share grandparents. And you can see in the genes the segments we match. Compare a group and see bigger and smaller pieces of the same chromosome shared. This piece of chromosome must have come from this ancestor, and here’s where it diverged. Complex but fascinating. Thousands of lives sharing bits of a single ancestor.
I’d never really thought about it before, but once I started to put together my family tree I began to appreciate the number of ancestors it took to make me. It’s obvious that there would be thousands upon thousands of ancestors, but rarely do we think about family beyond those we have known or heard about. My dna comes from thousands of ancestors. Tiny bits. All of them replicators, but probably all of those bits existing in other people out there. I doubt my uniqueness in that regard. So passing on my dna? Well, I don’t need to, it’s already out there somewhere.
So what about memory? I remember some of my ancestors. Those I knew well, most of my grandparents. Another who died before I was born, and was almost never mentioned. Occasional mentions of my maternal grandmother’s family, my great grandmother had a bad time (with many consequences for future generations) and was a feisty woman, and we visited a sibling or two when I was small, but I don’t really remember them. I really know nothing of the others, I don’t even know if I met them. Doing the tree has been interesting to find out more. Where they came from, what occupations they had, and the size and shape of the families. I have over 650 people in my tree, with the majority being direct ancestors I have found. It’s a great puzzle, far from complete. In some places I have been able to go back (tentatively) to as far as 1500 and 16 generations, and in another line just 2 with an unknown father for my paternal grandmother.
There are problems, beyond the brick walls and the lack of records, it becomes such that you are recording just names and dates. When they were born, when they died. The census records between 1841 and 1911 are the most valuable things out there telling you at least where they lived and what occupations they held. To get some understanding of who they were. Other records such as newspapers and prison records seem to capture the wealthy and the criminal, but not the ordinary. Parish records are great for those who were pious and present – those that stayed in the same place for generations. Great for an eye on the large clans and witness to the tragedy of infant mortality and death in childbirth, where legions of children and young people die way before their time and their chance to replicate. We are bits of those who survived harsher times long enough to replicate.
Our memory for our ancestors is not strong. Reliance on these black and white snapshot records with tiny amounts of information and no personality. Maybe this is just the ordinary folk. I note the family tree of my Swedish match has wonderful photographs and portraits of these land-owning people of means and details of these means. Maybe Scandinavian records are better or maybe poorer folk aren’t recorded in history. I’d love to know my link to this family, but I can’t help thinking that some kind of scandal must be involved! Interestingly the records with more colour about my ancestors and their families can be found for those who were on the fringes of society, those who engaged in deviant behaviour for survival. Some imprisoned for vagrancy, theft, fraud, smuggling, deported for murder, and others hanged as highwaymen.
Some lines are more complete than others. I think a certain amount of shared memory comes into play with the genealogy tools now being smarter and being able to identify matches between different family trees and the existing records. I think genealogy has potential for massive growth, especially now that dna tests are becoming cheaper and more accessible. Perhaps all those hidden family documents, photographs, pictures and memories will become available as people share them on sites such as ancestry and myHeritage together with the dna records.
Although new records are being found and transcribed, and over time census information will become available, much of the information about our ancestors is lost to time. Where no records were created, no evidence can be found. I’m not sure there is any science of ancestor archaeology to fill in the gaps for the many rather than the few. Their legacy is in the genes and the names and dates in the records, and before that, nothing really remains.
For the future things will clearly be different. There are many more records as our lives are captured on paper, on disk and in numbers. Is anyone keeping this information for posterity? Will you ancestors be able to look up what you bought on a particular day or how much electricity you used at a point in time? What you had in your bank account and what you really wanted from Amazon but never got around to buying? Your medical records and your flights abroad? What else?
Of course, social media allows us to create our own history that can be viewed by everyone now, and presumably your descendants in the future. Your friends, your dumb drunken antics, your pictures, your videos, your bad hair day, and your triumphs. How long does this stuff stay out there anyway?
What bothers me is what makes headlines right now. How people are using social media and virality (is that a word?) to create their legacy. There are some who take adversity or tragedy and use it to do good things – raise money for charity or bring media attention to an important cause to end suffering or make the world a better place. Those who work hard to achieve a significant goal. But the good and the bad get equal weighting in history, and there seem to be many people willing to do terrible things to get their fame and place in history. Modern media makes it oh so easy for someone to become the headline with minimal or accidental effort. Social media is also famously full of cheats and people creating fantastical fictional lives for themselves to appeal to an audience or to create some fancy legacy. This isn’t anything new, I’ve got ancestors who went to America and created for themselves a fancy back-story, published in a book, about a grandfather who was a Lord some-such of somewhere who lived in a castle and had lands and servants. Distant cousins apparently still come to England to visit the castle!
If I had descendants would they like me to be important and live in a Castle? Perhaps – I’m quite amused that my ancestors thought that way and made up a story. Am I disappointed my ancestors were normal people? Not at all. Will anyone in the future give two hoots what I do with my life? Absolutely not.
The people who care right now what I do are the only ones that matter!