It's All Relative
December 18, 2015 4:57 PM   Subscribe

Everyone on Earth is actually your cousin. Tim Urban discusses genealogy and pedigree collapse as one more reason we should all try to get along. Also, talk to your grandparents. They have stories too.
posted by disclaimer (13 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
I hadn't considered that my family tree got smaller way up there, but it makes sense as our population was smaller long, long ago.
Thanks for an interesting read.
posted by MikeWarot at 5:32 PM on December 18, 2015


Genealogy is poignant and mysterious because of the lack of records. I remember the moment when I found, after much searching, the name of the ancestral village from which my great grandfather emigrated to the United States. I wonder how the whole enterprise will be perceived a hundred years from now when people will be able to access every aspect of their great great geandparents' lives, including their social media profiles, and cradle to grave photographs.
posted by Pararrayos at 5:46 PM on December 18, 2015


(original post link)
posted by mwhybark at 5:49 PM on December 18, 2015


Oh wow, that makes perfect sense, I can't stand my fucking cousin.
posted by Divine_Wino at 6:24 PM on December 18, 2015


I wonder how the whole enterprise will be perceived a hundred years from now when people will be able to access every aspect of their great great geandparents' lives, including their social media profiles, and cradle to grave photographs.

... or there's a yawning black hole unrelieved by any tangible records. I was talking to a co-worker recently about kid photos, and his preservation strategy appears to be dumping all of them, unlabeled, into iCloud and then forgetting about them, with no backups. I suspect this is not uncommon, and that my grandparents saving some of their letters and scrap books is going to seem like hording in comparison to what many of the small kids of today have left.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:41 PM on December 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


Ryanshepherd, you raise a very good point, and one that scales both up and down: many people use online services like ancestry.com or wikitree or geni to store their genealogical research and its results. Many people don't maintain a local copy of their data, and many rely solely on the online service to give them the ability to work with it.
What happens when these services go dark? There are a number of genealogists that fear a consolidation of these services may happen, especially with ancestry.com's solid hold on the industry. Additionally, PC and Mac based software is on the wane: ancestry.com just announced that they're end-of-lifing Family Tree Maker (which synchronizes data to your ancestry.com tree and probably the biggest player in the field) so that people rely solely on the online version of their tree.

A general trend among newer researchers is to think its all perfectly safe out there, on ancestry's servers, and that this is a permanent, safe place to keep their data. It's not.

It's fine to only keep an online tree if you're only doing it for casual or temporary reasons, but I tell people starting out to not only keep a local copy of the tree, but also to download linked images, and to print it all out once in a while.
posted by disclaimer at 11:31 PM on December 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


or there's a yawning black hole unrelieved by any tangible records
Yes - this has often occurred to me. Researchers looking back from the distant future may well see a giant spike of information about the mid 20th century because they will still be digging up celluloid photo negatives and vinyl albums etc that are durable enough and simple enough that meaningful data will still be recoverable. Any time before that there was almost nothing, as we already know. It seems increasingly likely that any time after that the records will be so ephemeral that they will mostly be gone, or what can be recovered will not be meaningful owing to being stored in formats that don't fragment well, etc.

Maybe this will change in the future though, e.g. there is much less pressure to use powerful data compression so as time goes by records may become more durable as uncompressed data is much easier to read in fragments. And storage formats may improve, e.g. I'd guess that SD cards are more durable in landfill than magnetic drives. So there's hope.
posted by merlynkline at 1:34 AM on December 19, 2015


merlynkline, the issue, too, is whether future generations will have equipment that can read any surviving digital media and formats. SD cards may survive, but if there isn't anything surviving that can read them, the data will still be lost.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:55 AM on December 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


There are also debates about storage formats. For archiving images, many institutions have standardized on .tif for long term, uncompressed and lossless storage, yet the vast majority of online imagery is in .jpg format, which is anything but. But what's the standard for long term, archival storage for audio files? Video files? Those issues have yet to be settled. So it's not just about equipment and retrieval, it's also about the data format itself.

Which is why, for most genealogical data, printing it out is the format that is known to last. Assuming it's not printed by a cheap inkjet printer on cheap inkjet paper, which fades over time. Even laser printed copy deteriorates fairly rapidly. So there are concerns about how a photo or document will hold up in an archive over a hundred years, digital issues notwithstanding.

For genealogy, the gedcom format is the clear winner in standardized formats, but a gedcom generated by ancestry.com is a different beast than one created by a PC-based program like The Master Genealogist or RootsMagic. Even gedcoms created by family tree maker, a program owned by ancestry.com, doesn't import well to ancestry's online site. So standardization is an issue there, as well.

What's worse about the loss of PC-based programs to manage genealogical data is the loss of reporting. Ancestry doesn't offer it. You simply can't create printed versions of standard genealogical reports, like ahfantendel reports or even family group sheets that contain all the data about a family.

And don't get me started about standardizing DNA results or even how to report data regarding them. Gedmatch has a clear head start here, because at least on that site you can output your results to standardized text formats.
posted by disclaimer at 6:52 AM on December 19, 2015


That was a fun read (though with a certain tinge of "Have you ever really looked at your hand? I mean really looked??"), but I was struck by this:
The craziest thing to me is that this diagram, which only represents the last 200 years of your ancestry, contains 127 romantic relationships, each involving at least one critical sex moment, and most of them probably involving deep love.
The author has surprisingly romantic (and/or ill-informed) views about sex and marriage.
posted by languagehat at 9:31 AM on December 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


Storage formats are indeed an issue. But I don't think the technology is the problem. Will there be an SD card reader available in 2000 years? Probably not. OTOH, we are right now developing technology that shows some hope of reading the writing on the remains of scrolls incinerated at Herculaneum. So I don't really doubt the ability of a future archaeologist to develop the technology needed to read an SD card should she find one in a readable state. And if we can decode the scraps of ancient languages we have then picking apart the GEDCOM format shouldn't be a problem.

However in (e.g.) compressed image storage formats, each fragment might rely on information from preceding fragments in the file. So if you have recovered a partial file then you might have recovered nothing. Compare this to a photographic negative retrieved from the buried ashes of a building in a war zone - even a tiny, damaged section of it could yield something meaningful.
posted by merlynkline at 9:39 AM on December 19, 2015


That was a fun read (though with a certain tinge of "Have you ever really looked at your hand? I mean really looked??"),

You are right on the money here, but -- hilariously -- it seems he still hasn't thought this through entirely. Some this-will-blow-the-minds-of-your-dorm-room observations still overlook obvious points:
Writing this has really hammered home the point that humans are mainly a temporary container for their genes. In 150 years, all 7,100,000,000 people alive today will be dead, but all of our genes will be doing just fine, living in other people.
(Emphasis mine) Well, for those whose descendants are still around, yeah. One of my grandmothers was one of five sisters; somewhat unusually for that generation (all born around a century ago), she was the only one who ever had children. So where are the genes of my four great-aunts today? I suppose in some sense their genes are actually just their ancestors' genes so some of these are still kicking around in me and various third cousins I might have on that side of the family. Still, there are a lot of other genes in the mix as well.

I am always surprised that pedigree collapse is a concept which some find difficult to grasp, or are perhaps are just reluctant to do so. The concept (if not the name) struck me in my primary school days when I first pondered that two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents etc. meant that at some point the number of ancestors had to bump up against the population of the planet. Obviously some ancestors are filling more than one slot in the family tree, and people with many descendants are extremely likely to be in there somewhere. Still, I know adults who refuse to believe in such things.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:34 AM on December 20, 2015


> I am always surprised that pedigree collapse is a concept which some find difficult to grasp, or are perhaps are just reluctant to do so.

I am also surprised by the horror that cousin marriage seems to provoke in Kids Today (right up there with smoking), including the author of the linked piece. People seem to think that marrying your cousin will automatically produce two-headed offspring.
posted by languagehat at 2:54 PM on December 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


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