Science, the genealogical leveler?

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMay 29, 2012 11:15 AM


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I follow CeCe Moore's blog posts on scientific genealogy pretty closely. But it's more because of my interest in personal genomics broadly, rather than scientific genealogy as such. My own knowledge of my family's past beyond the level of grandparents is very sketchy. This despite the fact that I know I have two very well documented lines of ancestry which I could follow up on, my paternal lineage, and the paternal lineage of my mother's maternal grandfather. I don't have a great interest in this beyond the barest generalities, and my parents tend to have a rather disinterested stance as well. Why? I can't help but wonder if part of the issue is that unlike many South Asians my family has a relatively diverse background, so it isn't as if we are sustained by a coherent self-identity as members of a sub-ethnicity (Bengalis are not tribal, so lineage groups are more ad hoc and informal). Additionally, there is probably some self-selection in the type of personalities who would transplant themselves across continents and are willing to spend the majority of their lives in a nation not of their birth. But CeCe's post did get me to reflect on an issue which has crossed my mind before: most people of non-European heritage won't have a deep reservoir of centuries old baptismal records to draw upon in validating or extending their genealogical database. The only reason I know I have two lineages which I could research is that these are two lines of my family involved in the project of the Islamicization of Bengal over the past few centuries, and these families were keen on maintaining records of their pious achievements. The rest of my family's history quickly becomes clouded by fragments of oral history which are so general that I wouldn't be able to construct a genealogy. This doesn't bother me, but it might bother someone else. In contrast, I can trace some lines of my daughter's maternal ancestry back to Bourdeaux in the 16th century in about 10 minutes of internet research. The Catholic Church records in some regions are quite thorough! The same with almost all the other regions of Europe Western and Northern Europe from which she has ancestry. This is where scientific genealogy comes in. Right now very few people in the world are genotyped, but within a generation a substantial proportion will be genotyped. If, say, 50% of Bengalis in the world are genotyped, in theory my daughter might be able to construct a robust genealogical tree if she wanted to do such a thing for her paternal half (I suspect interest in this sort of endeavor is partly heritable though, so she might not bother). So today CeCe posted about a 3rd cousin she found. She seems excited enough. My initial thought was that I'm glad she is happy, because I can't relate, but my second thought was that I'd never be in that position. There aren't the genealogical records, nor the number of people genotyped, where that could happen to me. The former will never be rectified, but the latter can. I'm not particularly interested in finding my 3rd cousins, but I think it would be nice if I had the option at least.

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