Monday, October 12, 2009

Ancestry is largely a matter of personal choice

Over here, Quiet Reckoning responds thoughtfully and fully to a comment I made in my post about Rabid Scottish Nationalists. Amongst other things, he says:

Look at the numbers: Four and a half million Scots in Scotland, twenty million Scots in America, and twenty five million Scots spread across Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and a smattering of other former British Colonies. Only ten percent of Scottish people live in Scotland

Which I suppose is arguable, but relies on a pretty generous definition of ‘Scottish’ (far more generous, for example, than the definition of ‘Irish’ which Eire relies on for stuffing its team with mediocre English footballers.)

Genealogy, particularly as it exists for Britons and Americans, is a strange old business. I use the word ‘business’ advisedly, since selling tourists their family trees, tartans etc is a pretty sizeable industry. I wouldn’t go so far as to say ‘scam’ because by and large it is literally true that the average American tourist can trace a line back to some Jock or other. But it does depend on a very selective way of looking at things.

I’ve discussed this before on blogs somewhere: let’s call it the 'Multiplying Ancestor Problem'. People who are interested in their genealogy tend to think of their line of descent as being much narrower than is actually the case; they have no notion of just how ‘bushy’ family trees are. Consider the exponential multiplication of great-grandparents as you go back through the generations. You have four grandparents and 8 great-grandparents and 16 great-great-grandparents and so on. This doubling builds things up alarmingly: you only need to go back a couple of hundred years and there are 1,024 of your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents pottering about the four corners of the planet. All of them are equal genetic contributors to you (though some are the same person, which is why this growth doesn’t go back forever but instead all human beings share a Most Recent Common Ancestor), but of course when studying genealogy people tend to focus on just the one with the surname they happened to inherit (or, if something interesting like minor royalty can be readily found a few generations back, on that one instead), as if he or she was more ‘significant’ to the 'making of you' than were the others.

Given the sheer volume of ‘direct’ ancestors, it is no wonder that genealogy-sellers can always come up with an interesting/famous/Royal/Scottish person in your family history. They’re not lying: it’s just that every other Tom, Dick and Harry has him in their family history too. All humans are far more complicatedly interconnected than is generally realised (I remember some supremacist plonker on TV claiming that he ‘only had white Anglo-Saxon ancestors’. Of course it turned out on examination that just a couple of generations back there were all sorts of gypsies and other undesirables in his blood, and indeed, that if we were to expel from Britain everyone except those who ‘only had white Anglo-Saxon ancestors’ the population of these Isles would be reduced to precisely zero.)

I don’t dismiss identity-by-genealogy as complete nonsense. If being historically ‘Scottish’ is important to you and your sense of identity, sure, why not choose it? But it is a choice.

There’s a pertinent example of this in my own family. My paternal uncle and his wife, both English, moved to Edinburgh when my cousin was an infant. My cousin, now in his thirties, therefore has a strong Scottish accent, supports the Scottish rugby team, wore a kilt for his wedding etc. Despite being precisely as ‘English’ as me from an immediate genetic perspective, he feels patriotically Scottish. He wants to be, and is, Scottish. Which is fine. But it has led him deep into the confused web of wishful genealogy. He and I are Nixons, and there was, according to some old historical documents or other, a bunch of notorious Nixons back in the legendary/mythical clan-days (border-raiding cattle-thieves or some such). It has therefore become his life’s work to try and connect himself, via an unbroken ancestral line, with these notorious Nixons and therefore to prove that he is, by genetics as well as upbringing, a bona fide Scot.

He hasn’t managed to do it yet (which doesn’t stop him claiming them of course). But there is no doubt whatsoever that, if he followed any line in his hugely bushy ancestry, he could get to Scotland – perhaps a Campbell or McDonald or both – somehow and soonish. All of us Britons, Aussies and most Yanks could, since if you define it generously enough, we’re all ‘Scottish’. We’re also all English, Norman, Roman and ultimately (and this last applies to literally everyone on the planet, even Norwegians and the Welsh) we’re all ‘African’.

So anyway, going back to Quiet Reckoning: of course it’s his right to choose to identify himself as a particular kind of Jock, to feel pride in that and so on. No problem there at all, it’s a valid option. But, for myself, I can’t see the point in getting angry about any of this genealogical Anglo-Scottish stuff, when the ‘side’ you’re on is such an arbitrary matter.


malty said...

Not sure that the majority of tourists are heritage junkies. By far the biggest daily influx is 2 hours after the Imuden / North Shields ferry has docked. Dutch, Germans, Italians, Spaniards and Russians pack the viewpoint car park atop Carter Bar then head up the A68 to Edinburgh, where yesterday the predominant accents were Polish and home counties English, in other words, locals.
QT is correct in saying that the ancestry detectives funnel themselves into a narrowing gap when in fact, of course, by definition a tree fans up and out.
The tribal instinct is strong in all of us, I would suspect, and very few are able to resist its urge, I am an Englishman living in Scotland, born on Tyneside, spent some of my life in the South East, my feeling of Englishness is not strong, I have great empathy towards Germany and its people but when push comes to shove I would still describe myself as a North Easterner.
What my distant ancestors were or were not has little bearing and therefore little interest, unless of course there happens to be a few bob in it.

Sophie King said...

It's odd, isn't it? I haven't actually lived in Shropshire for over twenty years but I'm still most definitely a Salopian. Apart from the first couple of years, I spent all my childhood and early adulthood there. During all the years I lived in London, I never once described myself as a Londoner. It was simply unimaginable. In our early married life my husband used to get infuriated when I referred to my parents' house as home, rather than the house I shared with him!

Gaw said...

I think there's a danger of over-intellectualising a pretty diffuse anger about the world not being as good as it should be. In my firebrand days I used to blame, for want of a better phrase, the English ancien regime for the country being rubbish. But as I grew up I concluded amongst other things:

(a) Feeling anger is a waste of energy: it's over.

(b) The country could be a lot worse.

(c) Our rulers were/are as clueless as everyone else, they're not capable of long-term plotting.

(d) Even if they were a not wholly good thing, our rulers were/are better than a lot of others (Prussian Junkers, Soviet communist party, etc.)

QR has spent a great deal of effort in narrowing his target down to British Scots who screw over Scottish Scots. I think he'll find the problem is actually a more general one of some people screwing over some other people.

For what it's worth, I think well-established institutions and the rule of law are our best bet to keep this phenomenon under control. So following independence I look forward to the Salmondite tyranny, under which some Scots will screw over some other Scots.

Brit said...

Our rulers were/are as clueless as everyone else, they're not capable of long-term plotting.

Exactly. The failure to grasp this obvious truth leads to all sorts of nonsense (9/11 Conspiracy Theories etc). It's incredible how people like Chomsky, otherwise intelligent presumably, have this intellectual blind spot.

worm said...

well thought out stuff Brit! And totally agree.

Just like to add that the people who REALLY piss me off are the militant cornish nationalists.

David said...

Although you back off it at the end, you do tend to privilege genetics over culture. But all this stuff is socially constructed, even the belief that knowing something about our (more of less immediate) ancestors tells us something interesting about us.

Undoubtedly, if we could trace my genetics we'd find some cossack (or the equivalent) who raped some great-to-the-nth grandmother of mine, and leaves me as much of a genetic legacy as great-to-the-nth granddad Cohen, but he plays no part in my social identity and thus can be ignored.

All this ancestor nonsense is just a way to buttress our existing socially constructed identity, which I think is the point you're making in the end.

Ian Woolcott said...

I knew Morrissey was on to something when he sang about "the Eskimo blood in my veins..."

Brit said...

David: In the end yes... and also in the title of the post?

Anonymous said...

Very rational, very common sensical, but it's the common sense of a bemused majority. I really don't think you are going to nip too many national liberation movements in the bud by inclusive appeals to our common ancestry through Mitochondrial Eve.

You rationalists sure are pushing the irrational side of life into tiny corners these days. Nobody can get too passionate about religion or country or ancestry or kings without some bright boffin telling him the evidence shows it makes no sense. It's getting so that a chap can't make his humdrum life bearable by fantasizing about slaughtering people anymore.

Brit said...

I have no desire whatsoever to deny any chap his genocidal fantasies by appealing to Mitochondrial Eve. On the contrary, I demonstrate that one has absolute freedom to align onself with any group of oppressed peoples that one fancies.

David said...

Brit: There's a tendency to think that "socially constructed" means chosen, but it doesn't. Socially constructed limits are sometimes more real, in the sense of unavoidable and constraining, than those imposed by nature. It's easy to wear glasses; hard to not be English.

Gaw said...

David writes: 'Socially constructed limits are sometimes more real, in the sense of unavoidable and constraining, than those imposed by nature.'

And sometimes not. All modern nationalisms have been invented and then sustained by the willed imagination of individuals. Other individuals can then decide whether they want to participate in this imagined community or not.

Self-definition, including one's nationhood, can be a lot more malleable than you seem to be suggesting.

Brit said...

Ah I see David's point now. Yes, although my post was really about the genealogy 'industry'.

But also Gaw is right - it's incredibly easy for people to become, for example, English if they make the effort. All sorts of terribly terribly English people have become so consciously (the royal family for example). In fact, being terribly terribly anything is often a big giveaway.

Anonymous said...

one has absolute freedom to align onself with any group of oppressed peoples that one fancies

Really? I feel like a child in a sweet shop.

it's incredibly easy for people to become, for example, English if they make the effort.

So many retorts, so little time.

David said...

Anyone can choose to be English (within limits), but no one can choose to change "Englishness."

malty said...

If post conception racial selection is now freely available on the NHS then please can I be a member of the Beaker people.

Brit said...

That requires some thought, David (though obviously we've wandered a way from the point of the post).

I should imagine that QuietReckoning considers that he has 'Scottishness', mainly because of a genetics. But what is Scottishness? (I include aggressive drunkenness and Glaswegian sink estates, but I don't expect many Scottish Americans claim those attributes...)

Anonymous said...

Anyone can choose to be English (within limits),

Only because the English agree they can. That doesn't work so well with German, Russian or Japanese. Bummer.

Gaw said...

David, the English are choosing to change Englishness all the time. It's very different now to what it was sixty years ago (cf Orwell) and the only people who can be held to account for that are the English themselves. I would guess Brit would nominate four musicians from Liverpool as prime movers in this process (mind you, they were English with a fair bit of Irish, Welsh, Jewish and Scots thrown in).

Anonymous said...

"Exactly. The failure to grasp this obvious truth leads to all sorts of nonsense (9/11 Conspiracy Theories etc). It's incredible how people like Chomsky, otherwise intelligent presumably, have this intellectual blind spot."

Chomsky has attacked the 9/11 conspiracy from day one - he's actually quite good at demolishing it.

Brit said...

I was suggesting that Chomsky has an intellectual blind spot ("hegemony" etc), not that he is a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. I appreciate that even he's not that dumb.