Why Are We All So Obsessed with Genealogy?
Libby Copeland on America’s Endless Exploration of Its Own DNA
The following is excerpted from The Lost Family by Libby Copeland.
America has become a nation obsessed with genealogy. The mere existence of so many genealogical materials digitized, indexed, and searchable online, and our communal drive to find them, comes from a suite of personal and cultural motivations, as well as a complex history around the search for lineage. In his 2013 history of American genealogy, Family Trees, historian François Weil traces how the American impulse toward genealogy has often been in tension with itself. In the early days of the new American republic, Weil writes, the idea of establishing one’s family line was associated with the British aristocracy’s obsession with social rank, and viewed with suspicion by a society that saw itself as more egalitarian and forward-looking. Why would one be driven to document one’s ancestors, if not to prove some connection to better birth and station?
But over the course of the 19th century, that shifted, enough that by 1879 the New York Times could declare that “we are becoming the most genealogical nation on the face of the earth.” Weil writes that American genealogy transformed into a respectable middle-class endeavor as Americans began to justify and sanctify the activity within the context of family, which came to be viewed as an almost holy thing. The family “was viewed as a refuge from the outside world in an ever-changing environment,” Weil writes, and genealogy became a mechanism for remembering and solidifying that unit.
Besides, some Americans came to see the process of learning one’s family history as a moral endeavor—a person could learn much from what her ancestors had done right or wrong. Reframed within the context of republicanism and democratic ideals, genealogical inquiry could become the means to celebrate not just the richest and most titled of forebears, but even the humbler sort. One 1850s Pennsylvanian went so far as to boast of his family’s “mediocrity.” The practice of keeping one’s family history in a household bible had long been popular; now, middle-class New England families augmented those bibles with wall hangings of family registers and embroidered family trees.
Yet for some, genealogy was also a means of forging identity by relating to some people and excluding others. Even before the Civil War, there was “lineage consciousness” among those descended from elite colonial families, who used their descent from “high” birth to justify and enforce their higher social rank. (Some nouveau riche bought fake family pedigrees and had family crests painted on their carriages.) Americans also became intrigued by the idea that the country boasted different “stocks”—there were the Puritans, the Southern Americans, the New Yorkers. And in the wake of the war, Weil writes, genealogy became a vehicle for many whites to bind “ancestor worship, nationalism, and racism” into one big ugly package. By the early 1900s, these notions were well entrenched, so that presidents general of the Daughters of the American Revolution could talk of the importance of the country’s Anglo-Saxon roots, of the “purity of our Caucasian blood,” and the importance of “the white man’s standard of living.”
Of course, there were other forces at play in this transformation, including some key scientific breakthroughs that would form the basis for the field of genetics—as well as a theory that, in attempting to explain the vast social, racial, and economic divisions that ran through society, served to reinforce them.
Gregor Mendel died in obscurity. The priest and naturalist whose work helped us understand genetic inheritance was only recognized well after he died. Born in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic) in 1822, Mendel made his breakthrough in the 1850s and 60s, breeding garden peas in the monastery garden at Brno. In a series of innovative experiments, he examined things like height, seed shape, and pod color, trying to track the traits of plant hybrids through the generations. Years of study led him to develop a theory of dominant and recessive traits that explained how things like wrinkled seeds can seem to disappear for a generation or more, and then reemerge intact.
Mendel’s intention was not to establish laws of heredity, nor to anticipate the concept of the gene, but when his 1866 paper on those pea experiments was rediscovered in 1900, he came to be seen as a prophet because of all that had happened in the sciences in the decades in between. In 1859, Charles Darwin had published On the Origin of Species, describing his astonishing theory of evolution by natural selection. Origin of Species explained how selection drives change by way of inherited variations within populations, helping organisms with traits better suited to their environments to survive and pass their adaptations on to their young. The book was seen as intriguing, radical, implausible; copies flew off the shelves. Although Darwin’s ideas weren’t immediately accepted whole cloth by his peers, they sparked larger conversations about the concept of evolution. There were also lively debates about the mechanism through which heredity might work, though none of those theories—including Darwin’s, involving something called “gemmules”—would prove right.
Origin of Species had a big influence on Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, an explorer, statistician, and all-around polymath who was fascinated by the topic of heredity. Galton became deeply interested in studying the relative contributions of what he would later coin “nature and nurture,” helping frame a debate that has fascinated generations of psychologists (and would, over a century later, entrance a six-year-old named Anne Wojcicki, who grew up to co-found a company called 23andMe). Galton was a data guy—known to methodically count yawns during lectures—and he set about quantifying what made human beings what they were, pioneering methods that would become influential in human genetics research. He had the innovative idea of using twin studies to examine the influences of nature versus nurture. He used pedigree charts to try to study how traits ran in families. He set up an “Anthropometric Laboratory” at a major exhibition, charged visitors three pence for admission, and collected information on all sorts of things about them, like “keenness of sight and of hearing,” “force of blow,” and “breathing power.” He developed a system for classifying fingerprints and studied photographs of criminals, hoping their facial features would illuminate their characters.
Ten years after Darwin published Origin of Species, Galton published Hereditary Genius, attempting to demonstrate through the genealogical study of eminent men that character, intellect, and ability ran in families. (He dismissed the idea that these judges, statesmen, and commanders might have benefited in a big way from social and economic advantages.) And he offered his theory of how to make humanity better: Just as it was possible to breed horses and dogs for speed, people could be bred through a series of “judicious marriages.” Later, he coined the word “eugenics” to describe what he called the “science of improving stock . . . to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.”
All of this—as well as a better understanding of cells and new thinking about the nature of heredity—created a new context for the rediscovery of Mendel. His paper on pea experiments, seen as proof of the existence of paired hereditary particles, set the stage for more research establishing the classical concept of the gene as a material unit in the chromosome. Of course, Mendelism and the early era of genetics tell only the beginnings of what we understand about heredity today; the rise of molecular genetics and a century of research were to follow. Mendel’s pea plants could not account for the full complexity of inheritance patterns—for the role of environment, or the way that multiple genes play parts in influencing most traits and diseases. Scholars like Gregory Radick, a historian of science, have pointed out that the emphasis on the work of Gregor Mendel in contemporary science curriculums may encourage belief in “the primacy of the gene” at the expense of a more accurate modern understanding of the complex roles that genes play in shaping traits. Such simplistic thinking can contribute to genetic determinism, a sense that genes are fate.Eugenics was no mere fringe movement; there was panic about the degradation of the human race by the unfit.
We know this danger because we’ve seen it before. The rediscovery of Mendel’s laws coincided with political and social movements advocating this kind of genetic fatalism—movements influenced by Galton, whose work lent itself to a hereditarian worldview. In the early 1900s, the theory of eugenics, coupled with the principles of Mendelian genetics and the reform-minded zealotry of the Progressive Era, became a frightful cultural force, the basis for a supposed biological justification for racism and discrimination that spread through England, America, and much of Europe, and still echoes in far-right corners of the Internet today. At the First International Eugenics Congress in 1912, lecturers showed pedigrees appearing to document families doomed to imbecility and lunacy. Germany, whose scientists referred to eugenics as “race hygiene,” was ominously well represented at the exhibition. In the United States, Indiana enacted the first compulsory sterilization law in 1907, with more than thirty states passing similar laws over the coming decades.
To modern eyes, eugenic efforts can appear by turns horrifying and comically unscientific. The concept of “eugenic love,” which promised to scientifically modernize marriage by encouraging what one editorial called “love in the right direction,” became popular among women’s rights reformers. At state fairs across the United States, Better Babies Contests emerged, where babies could be examined and tested, with points taken away for defects like scaly skin, delayed teething, and slow reactions. Meanwhile, psychologists administered IQ tests to US Army recruits and concluded that “race” was linked to intelligence; conveniently, the racial hierarchy they discovered perfectly conformed to preexisting prejudices. Eugenics influenced the Immigration Act of 1924, which restricted the numbers of people coming from “socially inadequate” areas like eastern and southern Europe.
In other words, eugenics was no mere fringe movement; its assumptions shaped what both scientists and reformers thought they were seeing. There was panic about the degradation of the human race by the unfit. “It is difficult to find many early-20th-century American biologists who were not advocates of eugenics in some form,” observes historian Mark Largent. In 1927, in Buck v. Bell, the US Supreme Court upheld a state’s right to forcibly sterilize a woman after experts testified that not only was she “feebleminded,” but her mother and infant daughter were, too. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously wrote.
In Germany, where the Nazis explicitly borrowed from American eugenicists, the movement reached its terrible apogee, with forced sterilizations, marriage restrictions, euthanasia of the mentally diseased and disabled, and, finally, genocide. The Supreme Court’s decision in Buck v. Bell was actually invoked at the Nuremberg trials in defense of Nazi sterilization experiments. German atrocities provoked revulsion in America, but even so, Largent argues, it took decades for the movement to fade, and legislation to limit immigration—justified by eugenics—persisted. Involuntary sterilizations also continued, about sixty thousand between 1907 and the 1970s, when the laws authorizing them began to be repealed by states. Yet as these ended, historian Alexandra Minna Stern told me, a different set of circumstances enabled another wave of unwanted sterilizations affecting women of color and poor women. Reporting and a state investigation revealed that California was unlawfully sterilizing female prisoners as late as 2010.
Historian Nathaniel Comfort argues that eugenics is not an aberration of history. He hears its echoes in the promise of medical genetics, in thinking that frames “heredity as the essence of human nature,” in our impulse to perfection via the genes. The legacy of eugenics is just part of the much larger story of how genetics has helped us understand where we came from and how we’re made, but this legacy matters when we look at all the questions that ancestry testing and genetic genealogy bring to the fore: How do we define what we are, and what role should genetics get to play in that definition? How much of what we read in our genes and in our lineages is a product of the very specific culture we swim in? Today, some scientists debate whether “race” as a proxy for genetic variation and difference is useful, if imperfect—or so flawed that it’s not a worthwhile scientific concept. (We’ll return to this later.)
We look for ourselves in our family histories and in our genes, but such things alone do not make identity. We human beings are the meaning-makers, each of us a product of a particular time and place, with ideas about what we value and, indeed, what we hope to find when we look.
Excerpted from The Lost Family by Libby Copeland. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Abrams Books. Copyright © 2021 by Libby Copeland.