French Opinions of RootsTech 2014
Identity versus Genealogy versus Privacy

The Dream State of Genealogy


Jeanne d'Arc


"Just consider this. Is not the dream state, whether the man is asleep or awake,

just this -- the mistaking of resemblance for identity?"


A.J. Jacobs is a glib and witty writer. We do not know the man but the personality he presents in what we have read of his writing is what our grandfather would have called that of a "card". He writes best selling books; he is an editor at large for Esquire Magazine; he gives TED talks, and he has written a little Op-Ed piece about genealogy in the New York Times Sunday Review that is drivel. It is cheerful, it may be tongue-in-cheek, but it is drivel.

Under a title that coyly recalls an iconic if biologically incorrect American children's book , "Are You My Cousin?", Mr. Jacobs tells of his enthusiastic pursuit of relatives via collaborative family trees found on the Internet. He writes that these family trees -- the results of many people uploading their family trees and linking them with those that have common ancestors -- constitute a "controversial revolution" that is going on within the "previously staid world of genealogy". 

He also writes that he is aware that with these massive, collaborative trees there are issues of "accuracy, privacy and ownership of data" but that he is in favour of the effort to create a "collaborative, global family tree, despite its flaws" for two reasons: one, "it would be an unprecedented record of humanity" and two, "people will be nicer".

There is so much elision of reason, such a cavalier disregard for honest genealogy in this piece that we could do a series of posts elucidating its many flaws, but will instead point out just one, which is the one we see as being the most serious, e.g. the disparagement of and disregard for the requirement of accuracy.

Mr. Jacobs compares the insistence on the part of the "staid genealogists"  for accuracy and their scorn for the scores of family trees on the internet that are not sourced, (some of which border on fantasy, claiming descent from King David or Joan of Arc, for example) as being comparable to the thinking of the publishers of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, while the creators of the one, big, collaborative family tree are like the contributors to Wikipedia. His implication seems to be that collaborations online are the wave of the future and they get better with time, which is rather like saying "Get those scholars out of the way so that the uneducated can waste years attempting to reinvent the wheel." 

Genealogy is history, family history, and history is based on fact. There is no room for mere assertion. There is no option to replace fact with opinion. To do so is to open the door to the alteration or denial of facts, and that is revisionism, which is vile. It is vile because it presents a lie as historical truth. Revisionists say that the Holocaust or the Rape of Nanjing did not occur.

A global family tree that contained inaccuracies would not be "an unprecedented record of humanity"; it would be gibberish. Such a family tree, if it were riddled with mistakes, would not make people "nicer"; having no recourse to truth, they would bicker and dispute with one another incessantly. The befuddlement that results from a failure to strive to know the truth leads to a life lived in the dream state, with no connection to reality, and that is a life that might as well not be lived at all.

Mr. Jacobs writes that he is building his family tree (it would seem to be entirely from those submitted by others) in order to set a Guinness World Record by having the largest family reunion in history (the title currently belongs to a French family). Of course, if Guinness -- as they should do --  were to require a fully sourced genealogy confirming the true relationship of all of those people at the party, he may run into trouble. Mr. Jacobs also plans to write a book about his work with collaborative family trees, which we can only hope he will term as fiction. 

© 2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Read the comments to this post here.