I gave a talk at the Brookdale Public Library last night as part of the celebration of DNA day. DNA Day, or DNAD for short, was created about the time of the “completion” (more or less) of the Human Genome in 2003, and is set to be on the date of the publication of the famous research on the structure of DNA.

The point of the talk was to link behavioral biology and the anthropological study of kinship with the practice of conducting personal genealogy. There was a time when I did a fair amount of genealogical research, in connection with historic archaeology, which in turn was part of writing environmental impact assessments for publicly funded projects such as sewer systems, power plants, road improvements, and such. It is useful to know something about the people who lived on affected properties (or in affected buildings) back in the 18th or 19th century when assessing the potential significance of cultural resources, and genealogical research is part of that. Also, property research and genealogical research often go hand in hand.

At the time, I noticed a few interesting possible patterns emerging in the genealogical data, though I was never able to devote enough time to any of the projects to really narrow them down. For instance, one pair of families that lived mostly on or near Cape Cod, Massachusetts seemed to intermarry more than one might expect, almost resembling the time honored practice of “sister exchange” in some cases. Also, the two parallel families, who frequently engaged in property related ventures together, seemed to mainly follow two distinct geographically based economic strategies; one family lived mainly in the interior and farmed (among these farms was the first commercial cranberry operation in the US) while the other family lived mainly on the coast and engaged in shipping. Among the latter, one individual held the record for a time in the number of days to leave a Massachusetts port in a clipper ship, sail to Canton to load up with stuff, and return.

For decades, cultural anthropologists fixated on kinship (and associated marriage patterns and inheritance rules) as a central organizing principle in culture. This made sense for a lot of reasons. It seemed that any given culture had a sterotypical system of specifying relationships between people. These systems were not random or even that diverse; all the kinship systems studied across the world could be categorized into a few standard patterns. Perhaps one of the most striking things to European and American (Western) anthropologists was the frequent reference to kinship. In some societies, many individuals were referred to almost exclusively by kinship terms, with individuals’ given names rarely uttered. Social relations beyond just marriage or inheritance seemed to be determined by kin relations. And so on.

Over time, however, a couple of things happened. Three, probably. For one, even though all societies seemed to have a kinship system and all kinship systems could be classified into a short list of patterns, it also seemed that the kinship system observed by different anthropologists visiting a given “culture” at different times and places was sometimes different. Either kinship systems were more diverse or dynamic than previously thought, or their role in organizing society was weaker than imagined, as a system that is in flux would seem a poor starting point for a culture’s organization. Also, anthropologists were confused and confounded by the apparent fact that only some kinship systems mirrored an underlying biological reality very well. Many societies had and “underdetermined” system where, for instance, all the women and men in the generation above “ego” were called mother and father, respectively, even though they could not all be mothers and fathers. Other systems were “overdetermined” whereby individuals seemed to be classified into categories that broke atomistic biological systems down to smaller parts. Finally, it became a pattern in cultural anthropology to build up a way of thinking about culture and then, no matter how useful that way of thinking became, to toss it out and replace it with another. Models of culture among anthropologists were, it turns out, more dynamic than kinship systems within cultures!

About the same time that cultural anthropologists were both figuring out kinship and beginning to discard it as intractable or uninteresting, biologists were busy linking genetic relationships to behavior, a form of study that would eventually take shape in Sociobiology, Behavioral Biology, and Darwinian Anthropology, and Evolutionary Psychology (and no, none of those terms are really interchangeable, though there is overlap). Eventually it would become apparent to many of us that the “overdetermined” kinship systems actually do reflect an underlying biological reality, and we could understand why a patrilineal system with female exogamy and prescribed cross cousin marriage made sense from a behavioral biological point of view. Too bad the biologists and the cultural anthropologists were not more in sync, because we might have had some interesting conversations.

When a married man dies, his wife may become the wife (maybe the second or third wife) of his brother. When a man is married to more than one woman, it is more convenient for many involved in that relationship if at least two of the women are sisters. Under some conditions, more than one man will reside with and father the children of one woman, and in some cultures that is openly acknowledged, while in most, it is not. As mentioned earlier, women are often exchanged between patrilines over time, sometimes in the practice of sister exchange. Cousins, in some cases a particular kind of cousin, are often preferred marriage partners. And so on and so forth. These are all practices that have been identified in a number of societies. These practices are often explicitly defined, even given a name. There is probably a reasonable correspondence between a society’s economic base (or other factors) and whether or not any one of these practices is found. These things are seen all around the world.

However, most of these practices are explicitly or implicitly either prohibited or frowned upon, or simply ignored and unacknowledged, in Western society. Western society is one place where a fair number of people engage in systematic genealogical research. What this means is that when people do this genealogical research, they may be missing something, missing patterns, revealed by the relationships in their ever growing and ever more detailed family trees.

The other day, Amanda, Julia and I watched a film made by my sister, set in a geologically complex, active, and interesting part of the world. As someone with more than a passing knowledge of geology, I was enjoying the background as much as the foreground in that film. I especially appreciated the amazing thrust fault that showed up in many of the scenes, not to mention the broken ancient peneplains raised up by mountain building. At one point I stopped the film, rewound, and made everyone else notice these details! (I know, that must have been annoying.)

This is how I feel about Americans doing genealogy. As an anthropologist and behavioral biologist, I want those folks to at least have a chance to notice some of the interesting things they must be seeing here and there in their research.

After my talk audience members shared their observations. In fact, each of them could point to things in their genealogies that at first perplexed them, but that now they suddenly felt a better understanding of.

And, as individuals, they will never look at their cousins in the same way again.

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Image from Wikipedia Entry on Kinship

Comments

  1. #1 Christine Blythe
    emptynestancestry.com
    May 17, 2013

    I can see examples of this all through my family’s family trees, which indicate quakers, Acadians, Mormon polygamists, bigamists, affairs, illegitimate children, marriage of one sibling to a deceased sibling’s spouse, etc. In one case in particular, an unwed mother was employed in the household in which the father of her child lived as a husband and father to two children.