This week I thought I’d write about one of our country’s great national pastimes – one that spans the centuries, gathers the family around its lush field of dreams, and courses through our very being.
Now, those of you who don’t like sports or – more understandably – sports’ fans, stay with me. Ruminations… rarely goes where you think it will; it’s a point of pride. Besides, I already covered baseball (Ruminations…10.06.12). The rest of you, put down the cleats, drop the remote into the popcorn bowl, and log in to Ancestry.Com.
Climbing the family tree is fast becoming a top sport. I’m not sure why exactly, but if the Latter Day Saints will excuse the gambling, I’ll wager a guess. I think it goes to one of our oldest questions, the one first posed after Homo Erectus stopped dragging his knuckles along the savannah, and started using his fingers to scratch his head: Who the f*** am I?…or more likely: What the f*** am I? (let’s assume it took awhile longer for him to realize that the other flora and fauna were less troubled by such questions,…and, longer still, to realize that he and his lot were the only ones who even knew what a f***ing question was).
The well-known geneticist and public intellectual, Richard Lewontin* worried about our tendency to define ourselves by clambering up the jungle gym of ‘begats’ in the musty chambers of The Genealogical & Biographical Society. It’s great for beefing up one’s sense of history, but not so for one’s sense of identity. I agree. In fact, speaking of beefs, Dick and I share three of them when it comes to the over-excited hobbyist (you know who I mean, every family has one, charts all over the dining room table).
Firstly, it lulls one into an imagined affinity with a remote ancestor. This is not a good idea, particularly if one starts to identify with their supposed character traits. You puff up at your mother’s Greatn–Grandmother Mary Wollstonecraft, but then it comes out that Vlad the Impaler, or worse, Dr. Josef Mengele, ran in your Dad’s line. Guess which ancestor’s skeleton is quickly stowed in the closet.
Secondly, it misrepresents how remote that ancestor actually is. Genes move fast, they can go…well, viral, spreading out through the Brotherhood of Man faster than Michelle Obama’s Dougie. You may think you have a great deal in common with those who passed down that very august surname of yours, but chances are you have more in common with Eternity Shufflebottom down in PigPoke Hollow.
Thirdly, ‘begats’ are not so simple as they seem. Fellas,…remember dad’s very premature chat with you about how both he and mom gave you one of their chromosomes after doing the “special hug?” It was weird enough to learn that your mom had eggs (X-X) – one of which you once occupied – but then the bit about dad’s junk (X-Y)….ugh. Well, even if you point out that his Y-chromosome came uninterrupted down the male line to him, and then to you, there’s still no guarantee that every one of your many great-grandmothers was steadfast. You could be related to the milk man and, like great-grandpa, never know it (remember Infinity Shufflebottom, Eternity’s grandfather?…yup, the milk man). Of course, you could take a DNA test, but why risk it.
So what got me on this little rant you might ask? Well, something came up recently, and I needed a reminder.
A few years back, Harvard’s Graduate School of Design upped the ante on The Arthur C. Wheelwright Fellowship for young architects. Big money, 100K. “Artie Dubbledubblyew”, as we fondly think of him in the family, was my sixth-cousin-twice-removed, and, like Artie, I too was trained as an architect. When Moshen Mostafavi, the Dean at the GSD, remarked, “Well, I suppose it is going to be hard not to compare the Wheelwright to the Pritzker…”, my head went South Park on me, inflated faster than a JetBlue life preserver.
Then, I remembered that I can’t get a penny of it. Too old, and too distant a cousin. Nobody even asked me how I felt about my heritage going into someone else’s bank account. The prize also served to remind me that although my other sixth-cousin-twice-removed Edmund March Wheelwright (Artie Dubbledubblyew’s fifth cousin) – also an architect – designed the lovely Harvard Lampoon Building, I get turned away at the door. Every time. “But I’m an architect AND a Wheelwright,” I squeal, “We share genes!” No go. Some memberships trump the family ones.
All I can say is that if our shared ancestor, Reverend John Wheelwright, gave Arthur, Edmund, and me the “architecture gene”, a lot of other things went very awry down the germ line.
Oh, and did I mention that Dick Lewontin was also at Harvard? Forty plus years. It makes me wonder. Instead of worrying about the family tree, I should have just gone to grad school at Harvard instead of Princeton. I bet he could have gotten me into the Lampoon Building.
…So much for the relatives.
* RL passed away in 2021, eight years after this post was written. I’d been inspired by a nice piece he wrote in the NYRB that covered some of this : “Is There a Jewish Gene” (12.06.12). I’d also recommend The Triple Helix if you want more of his insightful and contrary views on genetic determinism. It’s good, even for architects (…and writers).