Science, the genealogical leveler?

By Razib Khan | May 29, 2012 2:15 am

I follow CeCe Moore’s blog posts on scientific genealogy pretty closely. But it’s more because of my interest in personal genomics broadly, rather than scientific genealogy as such. My own knowledge of my family’s past beyond the level of grandparents is very sketchy. This despite the fact that I know I have two very well documented lines of ancestry which I could follow up on, my paternal lineage, and the paternal lineage of my mother’s maternal grandfather. I don’t have a great interest in this beyond the barest generalities, and my parents tend to have a rather disinterested stance as well. Why? I can’t help but wonder if part of the issue is that unlike many South Asians my family has a relatively diverse background, so it isn’t as if we are sustained by a coherent self-identity as members of a sub-ethnicity (Bengalis are not tribal, so lineage groups are more ad hoc and informal). Additionally, there is probably some self-selection in the type of personalities who would transplant themselves across continents and are willing to spend the majority of their lives in a nation not of their birth.

But CeCe’s post did get me to reflect on an issue which has crossed my mind before: most people of non-European heritage won’t have a deep reservoir of centuries old baptismal records to draw upon in validating or extending their genealogical database. The only reason I know I have two lineages which I could research is that these are two lines of my family involved in the project of the Islamicization of Bengal over the past few centuries, and these families were keen on maintaining records of their pious achievements. The rest of my family’s history quickly becomes clouded by fragments of oral history which are so general that I wouldn’t be able to construct a genealogy. This doesn’t bother me, but it might bother someone else. In contrast, I can trace some lines of my daughter’s maternal ancestry back to Bourdeaux in the 16th century in about 10 minutes of internet research. The Catholic Church records in some regions are quite thorough! The same with almost all the other regions of Europe Western and Northern Europe from which she has ancestry.

This is where scientific genealogy comes in. Right now very few people in the world are genotyped, but within a generation a substantial proportion will be genotyped. If, say, 50% of Bengalis in the world are genotyped, in theory my daughter might be able to construct a robust genealogical tree if she wanted to do such a thing for her paternal half (I suspect interest in this sort of endeavor is partly heritable though, so she might not bother). So today CeCe posted about a 3rd cousin she found. She seems excited enough. My initial thought was that I’m glad she is happy, because I can’t relate, but my second thought was that I’d never be in that position. There aren’t the genealogical records, nor the number of people genotyped, where that could happen to me. The former will never be rectified, but the latter can. I’m not particularly interested in finding my 3rd cousins, but I think it would be nice if I had the option at least.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal Genomics
MORE ABOUT: Personal genomics

Comments (14)

  1. Hi Razib, I think it would be nice if everyone had that option too.
    The reason that finding a third cousin, or any DNA cousin actually traceable to a common ancestor, is exciting to me is that it allows me to add to my chromosome map. My goal is to eventually map my entire genome to the contributions of my great grandparents (and further when possible) and I hope others will too. I am passionate about helping adoptees identify their genetic roots, and positively “assigning” these DNA segments to specific ancestors in large numbers will greatly aid those who do not have the option of finding cousins because they do not know who their ancestors are. Imagine a massive “universal” family tree mapped genetically. That is what people like myself and Tim Janzen are hoping to help build.
    In the case of non-Europeans, this will admittedly be more difficult, but I hope it will eventually be possible. I don’t want my son to have empty branches on one side of his tree either, so I hope some South Asians inherited the “genealogy gene” too and kept genealogical records from which to draw. You (or your parents) must know who your great grandparents were, so write it down! We might need it one day.
    Thanks for your post, as always.

  2. Cheryl Whittle

    Having learned a couple of years ago that my mother’s husband was not my biological father; I am excited to see all that is being learned about DNA and mapping your genome with the Ancestral Geneology.
    I am blessed to have recently had 2 volunteers, Search Angels begin work on my biological father’s line. For 2 years I have tried to come up with answers about my paternal line, but with little to no success. So I have only half of a Family Tree, my mother’s line. I am reaching out to family, friends, the community, as well as FTDNA, 23andMe, and GedMatch.
    We are incorporating my maternal family tree from Ancestry in order to hopefully match Snps of Chromosomes with other DNA matches, then looking for possible relatives family trees that intersect on my tree, so we can separate my maternal matches from the pool. And what is left should be the paternal line. Then we will begin matching my paternal DNA with others in order to hopefully build my paternal lineage with hopes of being able to pinpoint my biological father once we complete the DNA and Ancestry matches.
    It may be a long shot, but without any information that directly links me to my biological father, it may be the only way I will ever know. I thank CeCe Moore for her continued support, information, knowledge and for putting me in touch with the Volunteer Search Angels…For all of their efforts I am forever grateful.

  3. You (or your parents) must know who your great grandparents were, so write it down! We might need it one day.

    a very insightful point. i actually don’t have much personal interest myself, but i wonder if my children and grandchildren might, so i began thinking of this sort of thing all of a sudden after my daughter was born.

  4. omar

    In our villages (central Punjab, currently in Pakistan), as in many parts of India, there were Mirasis who kept track of family histories with truly remarkable feats of memorization (accurate or not, they were internally consistent..meaning the mirasi could reliably recite the same long list of ancestors for the same person even if asked many years he wasnt making it up on the spot or anything like that). I am not sure if all social classes had this sort of record (I hve the vague impression that the village underclass, the “kummis”, may not have been remembered the same way). Within Hindu society this was connected to central repositories in certain temples but the practice survived conversion to Islam for at least a couple of centuries on a local level. Then came modernization and its been lost in one generation. I wonder if anyone has transferred such records to tape or computer? one day we may be able to test whether the mirasis were telling the truth about the earlier generations (they were very accurate about 2-3 generations up for sure).
    Do any of the Indian readers here know of research or other articles about the Mirasis and their world? They are almost all gone in Pakistan, but some oral history project may be able to capture some examples of their shtick for posterity…

  5. pconroy


    I predict your daughter will be fascinated by your ancestry. My own daughter, though identifying as Irish, was nevertheless fascinated a few weeks ago when she visited Paris, and talked with her French grandfather, who not only bears some resemblance to Napoleon, but is 1/2 Corsican to boot.

    Both my parents had great memories of relatives, especially my mother and her brother, but when I finally got around to write down the information, neither parent, nor uncle can now remember much. They’re all in their 80’s, and some of the information I got from my uncle a few weeks ago is clearly incorrect – which is even more disheartening.

    So, write it down, and the sooner the better.

  6. Spike Gomes

    I guess I’m lucky in certain respects. I can trace my mother’s ancestry back to the 1500s, for both the Filipino and German/Scottish components. Can’t go that far back on the paternal side, but both sides are filled with family lore about folks who died 70-80 years ago and beyond. For that reason I’ve always been fascinated with the subject, as well as quite a few others in my huge family (Much of the maternal side was filled in with documents gathered by my great-grandfather). I’ve a mind to write it all down in a single narrative, so that the story of a bunch of busybodies, eccentrics and travelers can be passed down to the next bunch of ’em.

  7. Leor

    Part of the reason why so many Ashkenazim are interested in genetic genealogy is because of the holocaust. Of course the great tragedy was the loss of life, but another tragedy was the loss of information. Razib, I encourage you to gather all of the genealogical data you can from the elders before it gets lost, and to use this in tandem with the genetic data. We have a saying: “What is poor here is rich there” — meaning that one must often combine information from different sources in order to properly understand an event.

  8. Justin Giancola

    stop reminding us how asocial you are razz…we get it 🙂

  9. #8, actually i’m pretty social (as some commenters, like pconroy, can attest). i’m just aconformist (not anti- as such).

  10. Charles Nydorf

    In the 1970’s when I first got involved in genealogy, the idea of doing a family tree of all mankind was very much in the air. Among the people, I knew this had to do primarily with the computer revolution which promised the possibility of linking up smaller family trees on an unprecedented scale. Another factor was the “Ethnic Revival” where “Roots” encouraged members of groups that are not well documented (Jews, in the case of people I was working with) to get involved.
    In my case, I believed then that the rise of genetics would be the ultimately be the key to getting beyond the limits imposed by documentation. This is proving to be the case, especially since about 2008 when it became practical to use autosomal data.

  11. ackbark

    A more peripheral element in the post caught my attention,

    Have emigrants to the US been more a-social or anti-social than average? Have they been people who are less likely to want to get along even with people like themselves, or who resent social responsibility or commitment?

    Clearly this wouldn’t have been the case in the early period when most of the emigration was in large groups, but afterward it was largely individual interest.

    Did Western Europe offload a significant proportion of it’s a-social types into North America?

  12. Justin Giancola

    ^ HA! I think you could be right! Everyone is a rebel without a cause!

    9. If you are saying that you and pcon go out drinking and don’t invite me, that is hurtful.

  13. pconroy

    Next time you’re in town hit me up…

  14. Justin Giancola

    😀 I’ve never really been to NYC; only drove through once! I don’t often make it out of the “middle east”! ;p


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar