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You are the stuff of history

by Evan | Nov 02, 2016
DNAFuture historians have a great new data source: you.

And you and you and you, and me.

Technology and determined genealogists are bringing together millions of family records at the same time high-tech geneticists are laying out human DNA records like a map. If not already, your social family history and your genetic family history will soon be matchable with mine and with that of our mutual cousin in Singapore. 

I hope it makes people happy.

Look, I know I'm out of my depth here. If you wonder about this kind of stuff, you owe it to yourself to read Christine Kenneally's 2014 book The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures. Kenneally is an advocate; she loves where these technologies are going and thinks more knowledge about our histories will be good overall for individuals, families and society.

Overall. With that qualifier, I can agree with her. Individuals can prevent diseases, families can see how long they've been driving each other crazy, societies can come to better grips with such things as racism and adoption. 

But Kenneally has a lot of her own qualifiers. The biggest and most infamous is the way genealogy got wrapped up with violent racism in such places as the American South and 20th century Germany. Meanwhile DNA science can show you your genetic makeup, but will you read it scientifically or with a head full of fears and prejudices? Should you have the right to keep that information private? Or is such privacy even feasible in the Internet era? 

Kenneally tells personal history discovery stories -- hers and others' -- that I found mostly distracting. More interesting are nuggets that show how genealogy and DNA science help savvy historians reveal previously unseen currents in the past. For instance, the slave trade not only hit hardest in the wealthiest African regions, but those regions are now among the poorest on that continent. This is partly because slavery fostered so much suspicion in later generations that they haven't been able to rebuild the culture of trust that is required for a thriving economy. 

At home I have a lot of boxes of family history materials, but I'm barely making a dent in them. It's hard for me to get past the idea that genealogy is ego-driven. Kenneally, however, is trying to push people like me, who are interested in world history, to appreciate how modern genealogy, with its computer networks, can make each of us contributors to the grand story of humanity.

So, my little ego trip becomes less about me and more about connecting the dots on the big canvas. Add in the potential of DNA science to make its own connections among us, and the history books of the late 21st century might tell a much truer story of the past than the ones we grew up with. (Think Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings.)

OK, but I'll still want to know whether the guy who fell off the Mayflower and survived really was, as I've read, one of my ancestors. That would make me almost famous.

EvanEvan - Married, three children, two grandchildren, formerly a newspaper journalist, now a public librarian, at all times a board game nut.
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