Steven Pinker's mama



Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker is exasperated with genealogists and their pop avatars, like Oprah ("knowing your family history is knowing your worth") Winfrey:

"We are all related," writes Pinker -- "not just in the obvious sense that we are all descended from the same population of the first humans, but also because everyone's ancestors mated with everyone else's at many points since that dawn of humanity. There aren't enough ancestors to go around for everyone to have a family tree of his or her own. So it is a mathematical necessity, not a surprise, that genealogy will turn up strange bedfellows. George W. Bush is a distant cousin of his electoral opponents Al Gore and John Kerry (as well as of Richard Nixon, Ernest Hemingway, Queen Elizabeth, and, through her, every European monarch)."

Yes, and mathematics is just finding different ways to say 4=4. And all web sites look pretty much the same if you stand far enough away from the monitor.

Commenter fnarf99 puts it this way: "For some of us, tracing our ancestors is a way to sew ourselves into the cloth of history. I mean, we all know the generalities of the story, but finding out the exact time and place and people of your family makes the past tactilely real."

Ian Frazier, whose book Family is the only one I know to equal the great William Maxwell's Ancestors, delves deeper:

"I wanted my parents' lives to have meant something. I hunted all over for meanings of any kind -- not, I think, simply out of grief or anger at their deaths, but also because the stuff they saved implied that there must have been a reason for saving it.  The smell of an old hymnal, the weave of a black mesh hat veil, the tone of a thank-you note, each struck me with the silent force of a clue. Something was going on here. I believed bigger meanings hid behind little ones, that maybe I could follow them to a source back tens or hundreds of years ago. I didn't care if the meanings were far-flung or vague or even trivial. I wanted to pursue them. I hoped maybe I could find a  meaning that would defeat death."

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