Richard Conniff writes about natural history and human behavior. His latest book is The Ape in the Corner Office. But he’s roiled the world of genealogy with his recent article in Smithsonian titled “Why Genealogy Is Bunk.” He fails to state the case, if indeed that was the case he was intending to state. And there is good reason to believe that even Conniff accepts his title as hyperbolic.
Of course any thinking person realizes that genealogy is no more “bunk” than are biology, sociology, psychology, history, or geography. These disciplines are enlightened by genealogy and genealogy is really the study of them. Indeed, genealogy is like a scope through which we may examine these other disciplines at various focal lengths.
Conniff is at best ambivalent, or perhaps cautious, about genealogy. He points out a few extreme situations that “make [one] wonder if we shouldn’t think through this genealogy thing a bit more clearly[.]” And he notes that while millions of people share “celebrity” ancestors, say Charlemagne or Julius Caesar, “[y]ou are probably also related to every sniveling peasant who ever managed to replicate in ancient times.” None of this comes as a great shock to serious genealogists. In fact, one of the reasons to study genealogy and encourage its understanding to facilitate the greater understanding that we are all related.
Indeed, Conniff points out the salutary side of genealogy with some modest enthusiasm. He says that he met first cousins he never knew thanks to the website geni.com. Then he admits a curiousity about the origins of his family name and about a certain, quirky great-grand-
father. “These are,” he says, “the small, sweet pleasures of family history.”
Thank you. We knew that.
July 2, 2007 Monday at 4:13 am