Our Obsession with Ancestry Has Some Twisted Roots


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A mile into Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon, heading east from Salt Lake City toward the Wasatch ski slopes, several concrete arches open into the face of a mountain. Behind doors designed to withstand a nuclear strike, through tunnels blasted six hundred feet into the rock, in a vault that’s another seven hundred feet down, lies a trove stashed in steel cases: not bullion or jewels but microfilm, millions of reels of it. They contain billions of images of genealogical documents, an estimated quarter of all vital records on earth. The collection, owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is the largest physical archive of ancestry in the world.

“You hardly meet an American who does not want to be connected a bit by his birth to the first settlers of the colonies, and, as for branches of the great families of England, America seemed to me totally covered by them,” Alexis de Tocqueville marvelled in 1840. It’s often said that genealogical research is the second most popular hobby in the United States, after gardening, and the second most popular search category online, after porn. Those claims should be sprinkled with a few grains of salt, but more than twenty-six million people have taken genetic ancestry tests since 2012, incidentally creating a database of huge value to pharmaceutical companies and law enforcement. The Silicon Valley-based testing company 23andMe, which formed a partnership with Airbnb to market “travel as unique as your DNA,” went public in June, 2021, with a valuation of $3.5 billion. The genealogical behemoth Ancestry, which boasts more than three million subscribers and the nation’s largest genetic database, was purchased for $4.7 billion in 2020.

For those not drawn to genealogy, such an interest can seem “at best, embarrassing, if not a sign of narcissism and pitiable aspiration,” Maud Newton acknowledges in a candid memoir about her own genealogical obsession, “Ancestor Trouble” (Random House). But, whatever you think about genealogy, it has profound ramifications for you. From the doctor’s office to the passport office, ancestry inflects the social, material, legal, and medical conditions of nearly everybody’s life. “The stories we tell ourselves about our ancestors have the power to shape us,” Newton observes. Why and how this has come to be has an ancestry of its own.

Virtually every culture tells a story about the origins of humankind—a story about its ancestry. In Norse tradition, the gods Odin, Vili, and Ve turned an ash tree and an elm tree into man and woman, and infused them with breath, intelligence, and speech. The sacred text of the K’iche’ Maya people, Popol Vuh, describes how the creators tried making human beings from clay, but they crumbled in the rain; then from wood, but they were stiff and unfeeling; and then from ground-up yellow and white maize, with water for blood, and they grew healthy, fat, and expressive. The God of the Old Testament, after making the heavens and the earth and filling them with birds, animals, and fish, “formed man of the dust of the ground,” and from the man’s rib fashioned woman. The origin story that we tend to believe today describes the emergence, through evolution, of anatomically modern humans in Africa about three hundred thousand years ago.

Origin stories provide collective accounts of where “we” come from, but they also help some lineages claim power over others. Ruling dynasties often boasted of sacred or supernatural ancestors. Egyptian pharaohs styled themselves sons of Amun-Ra, and Chinese emperors were “sons of heaven.” Inca emperors traced their pedigree to the sun, Roman rulers to Venus, and Merovingians to a sea monster. The “begats” of the Old Testament reflected the importance of lineage as a basis for authority in the ancient Near East. These were echoed by the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, which took pains to endow Jesus with descent from Adam and Abraham, respectively; and by later Arabic genealogies that traced the Prophet Muhammad’s ancestry to Abraham. A verse of the Hindu scripture Rigveda, which describes how the gods divided the cosmic being Purusha into four parts—to form priests, warriors, merchants, and laborers—has been interpreted, controversially, as justifying the development of caste.

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“Maybe it was inevitable that humans would choose to explain the order of things to themselves in this way,” Newton says. But the near-universality of hierarchies based on ancestry makes it all the more important to consider who gets to define genealogical knowledge, record it, and access it. Before the print and digital eras, genealogical records overwhelmingly resided with religious and kin-based authorities: in the tablets of Chinese ancestral halls and the lineage books (jokbo) kept by eldest sons in Korean families; among the reciters of Maori lineages (whakapapa) and the griots of West Africa, who sing the histories of dynasties; in the baptism registers of the Catholic Church and the lists of births and deaths kept by Hindu pandas. In Europe, the “family tree,” which had its own roots in early-medieval representations of the lineage of Jesus, emerged by the sixteenth century as the dominant metaphor for genealogy.

The expansion of European empires in the early-modern era imposed the genealogical priorities of Western Europe on countless other populations. One especially consequential strand can be traced to fifteenth-century Spain, where, following the mass conversions of Jews and Muslims to Christianity, “purity of blood” (limpieza de sangre) statutes were passed to ferret out “New Christians” and keep them from holding public or religious offices. Transplanted to the Americas after 1492, the Iberian obsession with genealogical purity informed the development of a sistema de castas, as scholars have termed it, that stratified colonial populations according to their proportions of white, Black, and Indian ancestry. The Portuguese brought the freighted term casta to India, where it was picked up by English speakers to describe the descent-based groups they found there.

Starting in the eighteenth century, genealogical authority increasingly shifted from religious and family figures to government officials who certify births, license marriages, decree divorces, register deaths, and probate wills. Identity documents emerged in tandem with typically spurious theories advanced by practitioners of “race science” and by ethno-nationalists about the ancestral origins of various human populations—one of which persists, shockingly, in the use of “Caucasian” as a synonym for “white.” Legal codes granted and restricted citizenship and civil rights on the basis of ancestry, resulting in the United States’ “one drop” rule, exclusion acts, and immigration quotas tied to “national origins.” A pair of Supreme Court rulings about naturalization played on pseudoscientific associations between ancestry and race. In 1922, the Court determined that the Japanese immigrant Takao Ozawa could not become a U.S. citizen because he was not ancestrally “Caucasian,” and therefore was not white; in 1923, it held that the North Indian immigrant Bhagat Singh Thind—who, according to the race science of the period, was Aryan and thus Caucasian—could not naturalize, either, because he didn’t look “white.”

Today, geneticists have emerged as authorities on ancestry, replacing “blood” with DNA. Even before the word “gene” was coined—sharing a Greek root with “genealogy”—to describe the biological units of heredity, Francis Galton came up with the term “eugenics” to promote human improvement by means of selective breeding. It’s hard to overstate the international appeal of eugenics in the early twentieth century, including among progressive intellectuals. Eugenic policies deployed ancestry in violent new ways; a Virginia sterilization law was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1927, when Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., made the notorious pronouncement that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (It was his father, incidentally, who originated the phrase “Boston Brahmin,” to describe the city’s hereditary élite.) American eugenicists inspired the architects of Nazi race laws, which triggered what must be the largest mass uptake of genealogical research in history, by requiring the vast majority of Germans to produce “ancestor passes” to prove Aryan descent. Another term sharing the familiar root was coined in 1943 to describe what happened to Jews and others who couldn’t comply: “genocide.”

Each way that humans have conceived of ancestry has been layered onto others. Genealogies record spiritual and social priorities rooted in origin stories. Family and citizenship law codifies privileges and exclusions based on lineage. Today’s addictive Web sites and sleekly packaged DNA kits rest on deep, if not always acknowledged, assumptions about the fixity of status, race, ethnicity, and nationality. Ancestry doesn’t simply have power, in the emotional and psychological respects that Newton describes; in critical ways, it is an instrument of power.

The emergence of the Mormons as drivers of the modern genealogy industry exemplifies these interconnections. Just a few years after the antiquarian John Farmer published the “Genealogical Register of the First Settlers of New England” (1829)—a work that, according to the historian François Weil, “transformed the practice of genealogy in the United States”—Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, had a vision in which the prophet Elijah urged him to turn “the hearts of the children to their fathers.” While middle-class white Americans looked for lineal connections to a national origin story embodied in “first settlers” and “Founding Fathers,” Mormons began conducting proxy baptisms of ancestors who had died before the origin of the Church. By the mid-eighteen-forties, when the nation’s first genealogical organization was founded, in Boston, Mormons had performed more than fifteen thousand proxy baptisms, including at least four for George Washington.

Completing “temple work” on behalf of ancestors required researching and transcribing genealogies, a pursuit in which Mormons were aided by the providential (as they saw it) expansion of state-administered record-keeping. In 1894, the Church president Wilford Woodruff enjoined members “to trace their genealogies as far as they can, and to be sealed to their fathers and mothers.” The Church-sponsored Genealogical Society of Utah was established a few months later, coinciding with a spate of lineage organizations founded by white, Protestant, self-styled “Anglo-Saxons”—including the Daughters of the American Revolution (1890) and the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (1897)—in the face of surging immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. The Church, as Francesca Morgan observes in a perceptive history of genealogy in the United States, “A Nation of Descendants” (North Carolina), has long held that “the more people—Mormon or not—engaged in genealogy, the closer everyone drew to fulfilling God’s plan.” But Mormons were also taught that Blacks were the cursed descendants of Cain. The Church began admitting Black men into the priesthood only in 1978, a year after Brigham Young University granted an honorary degree to Alex Haley, crediting the publication of his book “Roots” with “generating more interest in genealogy than any other event in American history.”

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