By Laura Harrison |
When people hear that I am a Canadian who is getting a PhD in Scottish History, the inevitable first question (after an awkward blank pause where they wonder why a person would do such a thing) is: ‘Oh, so you must have Scottish ancestry?’
I find it very odd that it is most people’s automatic assumption that I could only find the history of a country interesting if I am in some way related to it. As Roseanna has written about, I think it stems from people’s expectations that you can only ‘properly’ study a country’s history if you have somehow experienced it. While this is arguably true for the most contemporary of histories, I partially study the Middle Ages – and I can guarantee it would feel equally foreign if you dropped me into either fourteenth-century Scotland or Canada. I think this assumption comes down to the ever-increasing interest in our personal family histories – especially in North America.
The growing fascination with family histories is no secret. There are websites that allow you to build and link family trees (such as ancestry.com), television shows that look at the family history of celebrities (BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?), and archival websites that make money by giving people access to records (National Records and Archives of Scotland’s scotlandspeople.gov.uk). In America, studying genealogy has become the second most popular hobby; the first being gardening. It is also the second most visited type of website, after pornography (this tells me that there is probably big money in gardening pornography). The use of the public interest in genealogy continues to grow. Last month, ancestry.com launched two new initiatives, both aimed at making use of the now massive amount of family data at their disposal. One of these, AncestryHealth, uses existing family trees to map potential family histories of diseases and health issues.
On a theoretical level, I would encourage interest in genealogy. It gets people involved in history, which I will always be an advocate for. I often fear, however, that genealogy can lead to bad history. I think the biggest risk here is revisionism when people don’t like what they find. Ben Affleck received backlash when it was revealed he attempted to cover up his slave-owning ancestors during his episode of PBS’s Finding Your Roots. Do the actions of your ancestors somehow reflect badly on you? I think this plays into the question of how much your ancestors’ DNA actually affects who you are, which is a much larger nature vs nurture issue than I can get into with this post, but I think it is a question that deserves to be asked. I also fear that the ease of building your tree on many of these sites can lead to a lot of mismatched lines. My mum, while researching our own family’s past, has found many times when a daughter was supposedly born before the mother, or some similarly impossible time scales. Since these trees tend to follow one or two people from each generation, this can set the whole tree off.
A bigger question, which I often pose to my mum when I’m feeling particularly sassy, is: how far back do we go until we are related to everyone? My mom once sent me a hilariously excited email to inform me we were related to Robert the Bruce. As someone who has devoted a solid amount of my adult life to studying the man, I was pretty chuffed (and honestly happy that it wasn’t William Wallace). I wanted to see how closely we were actually related, so, after a bit of calculator effort, I figured out that Bruce is approximately 27 generations removed from me. At that level, I would have just north of 134 million grandparents. I then used somewhat-sketchy Wikipedia data to determine that the world population in 1300 (when my 134 million grandparents were bumbling around) was 360 million. Without accounting for the fact that many of those people were probably my grandparents several times over, I would be related to approximately 2.7% of the world’s population in 1300. According to this BBC article it takes going back about 100 generations before it would be likely that there would be at least one common ancestor amongst the entire world. It is like a high stakes game of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
For the record, approximately ¼ of my DNA does indeed hail from Scotland (with England and Norway rounding out my pasty skin, red cheeks, and affinity for pillaging medieval monasteries). I don’t focus on my own family at all in my research (unless you count my Grandfather x27 Bruce), which is probably for the best as it is a pretty disappointing story – fought with the English at Culloden, assassination attempt on a king, fun stuff like that. All jokes aside, I think the interest in family history taps into a much wider desire to make our lives mean something in history. I think Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are popular for the same reason – we want to feel like we are leaving a mark in some way. When we study our family histories and learn that Kings and peasants and blacksmiths and dictators and Vikings and bakers have all clandestinely knocked boots at precisely the right moments to create us, it feels like you have an important place in the world. And when you think about it like that, you’re probably right.
Laura Harrison is the Editor-in-Chief of Pubs and Publications. She tweets from @laurasharrison and you can also find her at academia.edu. For more information on the committee that runs Pubs and Pubs click here, and for info on submitting your own post, see here.
(Image 1: “Waldburg Ahnentafel” by Anonymous – http://www.ahneninfo.com/de/ahnentafel.htm. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons (wikimedia), Image 2: pinterest.com, Image 3: www.buzzfeed.com)
 Time, http://time.com/133811/how-genealogy-became-almost-as-popular-as-porn/
 Time, http://time.com/133811/how-genealogy-became-almost-as-popular-as-porn/.
 Ancestry.com press releases- http://corporate.ancestry.com/press/press-releases/2015/07/ancestry-launches-ancestryhealth/; http://corporate.ancestry.com/press/press-releases/2015/07/ancestrydna-and-calico-to-research-the-genetics-of-human-lifespan/