Wondrous Wednesday: Keeping it in the family

This one is actually two days late because I wanted to be more timely with the dog story from Monday, and if the Duke and Duchess could wait almost 900 years, they could wait two more days. (Besides, this would have been my father’s birthday, so it’s still an appropriate date in that regard.)

This past Monday was the 868th anniversary of an event that, without which, I wouldn’t be here — or at least not here as exactly the same person.

May 18, 1152, the Duke of Normandy, Henry Curtmantle (also known as Henry FitzEmpress and Henry Plantagenet), married the  Duchess of Aquitaine, Eleanor of the House of Poitiers, recent Queen Consort of France.

She was one of the wealthiest and most influential women in Europe, a leader in the Second Crusade, and considered the most eligible bachelorette at the time her marriage to Louis VII of France was annulled.

Strategically, this marriage gave the Duke control of Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitaine in France, and, when he ascended to the throne as King Henry II two years later, made her Queen Consort of England.

They eventually had five sons, three of whom became the King of England, but I’ll come back to them in a moment. Overall, their marriage wasn’t the most loving, and Eleanor did spend some time locked in a tower at her husband’s behest.

There’s an amazing film worth looking up, The Lion in Winter, which stars Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole at the height of their powers as the Queen and King, along with early appearances by Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton, and Nigel Terry, who would go on to play King Arthur in Excalibur. It’s worth a look. Here’s the original trailer, but keep in mind that it’s from the late 60s, when all film trailers were cheesy as hell.

As for their sons, Henry the Young King was actually crowned while his father was alive but never given any real power, and died in the summer of 1183 — which is the year that the movie above takes place. Out of the three left, Richard, Geoffrey, and John, Geoffrey died before he could become king.

Meanwhile, Richard is known as Richard the Lionheart, although he spent little time actually ruling in England — perhaps as few as six months. The rest of that time, he was off fighting in the Crusades or being held captive for ransom.

He was succeeded by the youngest brother, John Lackland, perhaps most famous for being perennially cast as the bad guy in Robin Hood reboots, signing things over to the barons with the Magna Carta, and being vilified in a Shakespeare play that didn’t treat his mother Eleanor so well either.

And yes, there’s a reason that England has never had a King John II and it would be him.

But when he wasn’t spending his time being not such a great king, he was nailing every woman in sight, including one named Agatha Ferrers, a daughter of the Earl of Derby, and from that relationship sprang a single strand in the elaborate chains of DNA that twisted their ways down through almost nine hundred years of history until I was born with a little bit of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and all of their ancestors before in me.

I’m working off of memory here because I’ve apparently added so much information across most of my father’s side of the family now that trying to run a relationship calculation between myself and Henry and Eleanor causes an error that crashes the program, but I think that they were something like my 36th great-grandparents.

Now, if the number of direct ancestors strictly doubles in each generation — two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on — then 36 generations back, we would each have a total of 68,719,476,734 ancestors. That’s 68 as in billion, as in nearly ten times the current population of the planet.

Keep in mind, though, that this is the total of all ancestors over time. When it comes to just great-grandparents of the 36th remove, then you have only half that number, 34,359,738,368.

That’s still a lot, and it leaves a very tiny scrap of DNA from each ancestor at that level in you.

Or does it?

See, there’s one interesting phenomenon that a lot of people would like to ignore or claim doesn’t exist, but it’s been a lot more common through history almost down to the modern age than everyone likes to admit. I’ll get to the phenomenon in a moment, but the result is something called pedigree collapse.

In a normal progression, if you start with an individual of the generation labeled as n=1, their parents as n=2, and so on, then at each level, the number of expected ancestors will simply be two to the power of one less than the generation; 2(n-1).

21= 2 parents; 22 = 4 grandparents; 23 = 8 great-grandparents, and so on.

But there’s an obvious problem here. As we go back in time, the available population shrinks. It’s all fine until about 1300, but at that point, available human population drops to 360 million while necessary ancestors per individual doubles to over 536 million.

And that’s not even doing the complicated math of figuring out how big the numbers explode if the only people who share the exact same common ancestors are siblings. And there’s the rub. Or the dirty truth.

The only way around this, as mentioned, is pedigree collapse, and the only way around that is what a lot of modern people in the west would get skeeved out about and call “incest.”

But it’s been happening for centuries, especially via cousin marriage.

First cousins, for example, share one set of grandparents by definition, because their parents are siblings, so they are related. If first cousins marry, they suddenly turn two sets of grandparents into one and halve the number of common ancestors immediately.

The same happens with more distant cousins, of course, but the point is that we could not have happened as a species without it. And if the idea of incest to even closer degrees grosses you out, FFS don’t look into the world of dog or horse breeding, and especially don’t look up the family tree of the Habsburgs. Keep in mind, though, that they were diddling much closer relatives than cousins.

But, really, throughout history, because people didn’t really travel all that far from their home villages if they were commoners, marriage options were limited. Such arrangements also limited the need for dowries — what, Bill is going to expect his brother Jack to buy his daughter’s hand for his son with some goats? Nah. Keep it in the family.

Oddly enough, the same mechanism was going on with royalty, except on a grander scale, and it was all about land, power, and real estate. So the Prince of West Nobbington was the brother of the Duke of South Fartberg, but they both needed to ally against the Earl of Greater Twatfrumple. Hey — they’ve got kids of about the same age and plug-n-play genitalia under the norms of the time. So what if they’re cousins? Make them marry, combine the lands, and suddenly the Grand Principality of Nobbingfart is powerful enough to make Twatfrumple not so great.

That is European history in a nutshell.

Sometimes, it leads to extremes, like the above noted and severely inbred Habsburgs. Most of the time though, not. And, by the way, the genetic dangers of first cousin marriages are exaggerated. However, for any direct ancestors or descendants, aunts/uncles and niblings, full or half-siblings, or combinations between said groups, then no. Just… no. Don’t even think it.

Step-whatevers… you’re not related, so it all depends on circumstances otherwise. But first cousins and more distant have been having at it since forever. That’s been the norm, not the exception.

If you only think it happens in backwoods places in the U.S., think again. Franklin Delano Roosevelt married his cousin Eleanor (maiden name, Roosevelt), and they were no hicks. He was from a wealthy family, and elected president of the U.S. an unprecedented (and unrepeated) four times.

This trimming the tree on the way down has been absolutely necessary, and even in the most apparently incest-free for generations of families, it can lead to some oddities. Again, my software isn’t letting me check it right now, but I do remember at one point I did a couple of relationship calculations to find out, for example, that Queen Elizabeth II and I are varying degrees of very distant cousins on multiple levels about half a dozen times and, technically, I’m even related to my own father about eight ways, although most of those are, again, in the distant past.

Ultimately, of course, since we all go back to the same common ancestors, human and prior, we’re all related anyway, and we all share DNA with each other. Technically, any two humans hooking up are committing incest. It all depends on how close you want to set the limit.

Image source: Funerary effigies of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, public doman

Going back up the family tree

I became fascinated with genealogy years ago, and used to spend many a Wednesday evening in the Family History Center next to the Mormon Temple near Century City in Los Angeles. Say what you want about them as a religion, but their work in preserving family history has been invaluable and amazing, even if it did originally start out for the most racist of reasons wrapped in a cloak of theological justification. Fortunately, the nasty justifications have long since been removed, and if it takes believing that all family members throughout time are forever bound together in order for the Mormons to keep on doing what they do in this area, then so be it.

It had been a while since I’d actively done any research, largely because I no longer had time for it, but back in the day, I did manage to follow one branch, the ancestors of my father’s father’s mother’s mother, also known as my great-great grandmother, to find that at some point this line had been traced back to the magic date of 1500.

Why is that date magic? Well, if you do genealogy, you know. If you manage to trace all of your own family lines back that far, you can turn your research over to the LDS, and they will do the rest for you. Keep in mind, though, that it isn’t easy to get all of your branches back to 1500, and certain ancestries naturally create blocks to progress. For example, if you’re descended from Holocaust survivors, you’re probably SOL for any time during or prior to WW II. Likewise if you’re descended from slaves, or your ancestors immigrated from Ireland, you’re not going to find many records after a few generations.

This is, of course, because paper records can easily be lost. For example, almost all of the records from the U.S. Census of 1890 were destroyed by a fire in 1921. During the period from June 1, 1880 to June 2, 1890 — the span between the two censuses — around 5.2 million people legally immigrated into the country. At the same time, the population grew from just over fifty million to just under sixty-three million. Or, in other words, the major and official historical record of just over eleven million people newly arrived in the country, through birth or immigration, were destroyed forever, with no backup.

Fortunately, over the last decade or so, science has developed a way of researching genealogy that cannot be destroyed because every single one of us carries it within us, and that’s called DNA, which can now be tested to match family members. On the upside, it can reveal a lot about your ancestry. Oh, sure, it can’t reveal names and dates and all that on its own, but it can tell you which general populations you’re descended from. Of course, this can be a double-edged sword. At its most benign, you might find out that the ancestry you always thought you had is wrong. At its worst, you may learn about family infidelities and other dark secrets.

I haven’t had my DNA tested yet, but my half-brother did, and his girlfriend recently contacted me to reveal that at least one family secret fell out of it, although it doesn’t involve either my brother or me. Instead, it looks like a cousin of ours fathered an illegitimate child in the 1960s and, oddly enough, that woman lives in the same town as my brother’s girlfriend.

Of course, the test also came with a minor existential shock for me, since she gave me the logon and password to look at the data. It turns out that my half-brother’s ancestry is 68% British Isles and 15% each from Scandinavia and Iberia. Now, since we have different mothers, the latter two may have come from there, but the surprising part was that there is nary a sign of French or German, although our common great-grandfather, an Alsatian, is documented to have emigrated from the part of Germany that regularly gets bounced back and forth with France, and the family name is totally German. I even have records from a professional genealogist and historian who happened to find the small village my great-grandfather came from, and my brother’s girlfriend tracked down the passenger list that documented his arrival in America from Germany on a boat that sailed from France.

But that wasn’t the troublesome part of the conversation. What was troubling was finding out that one of my cousins, her husband, and two of their kids had all died, most of them young, and I had no idea that they were all gone. This led me to search online for obituaries only to wind up at familysearch.org, which is the Mormon-run online genealogy website, and decide to create an account. Once I did, I searched to connect my name to my father’s, and… boom.

See, the last time I’d done any family research, which was at least a decade ago, I’d only managed to creep up one line into ancient history, as in found an ancestor that the Mormons had decided to research. This was the line that told me I was descended from Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine via an illegitimate child of King John of England. This time, things were different, possibly due to DNA testing, possibly due to better connection of data. Whatever it was, though, wow.

Suddenly, I started out on my father’s father’s father’s side of things and kept clicking up and… damn. After a journey through England and back to Scottish royalty and beyond, I wound up hitting a long chain of Vikings that eventually exploded into probably legendary bullshit, as in a supposed ancestor who is actually mentioned in the opening chapter of Beowulf. That would make my high school English teacher happy, but it’s probably not true.

The one flaw of Mormon genealogy: Their goal is to trace everyone’s ancestry back to Adam, and so shit gets really dubious at some point.

But… if you’re willing to write off everything claimed for you before maybe Charlemagne’s grandmother, then you will find interesting stuff, and the stuff I found after clicking up a few lines was, well… definitely interesting, and maybe reinforced the idea that, despite a German great-great-granddad, my half-bro and I are apparently British as bollocks for one simple reason: Everybody and his uncle invaded Britain over the centuries, including the Romans, the Vikings, the Danish, the Gauls, the Celts, and so on.

And, true enough… up one line, I wind up descended from nothing but Vikings. Up another, from but Vandals and Goths. Several lines tell me I’m descended from a King of Denmark. Along another path, it’s the Franks, house of Charlemagne, except that the Mormons tell me I’m descended from there long before Karl Magnus himself. Several other lines, including that King John one, I’m more Welsh than the Doctor Who production company. And there are all the royal houses: Swabia, Burgundy, Thuringia, etc., as well as several Holy Roman Emperors, and kings of France, the Franks, the Burgundians, and the English, that are dancing a pavane in every cell in my body.

So, what does it all mean? On the one hand, it’s nice to be able to flip back through history and look up people from past centuries — bonus points if they made enough of a dent in time to at least have some records to look up, and big ups if they appear in Wikipedia. On the other hand, you only have to go back six generations — to your great, great, great grandparents, to find a point where each of the 32 of them contributed less than one whole chromosome to your genetic make-up. About 40 generations back, each ancestor could not have contributed more than a single atom from that DNA to you, and before that, it gets meaningless. (I’ll leave you to do the math, but it’s about 8.5 billion atoms per chromosome, times 46.)

Yet… life and time marches on. A lot of our history is oral or traditional or recorded on paper. A lot of it is false, although science is marching us toward a sort of truth. Maybe I’m not as German as I thought, but I won’t know until I test my own DNA, and may very likely run into the ancestral roadblock on my mother’s side common to people of Irish descent — ironically because people of English descent were such right bastards a few hundred years ago. That’s one set of ancestors trying to wipe out another.

But if you go back far enough, what you learn about humans is what you learn about air and water. By this point in time, every molecule of air has been through countless lungs and every molecule of water has been through countless plants, animals, and people. All of us now living have literally breathed the same air and drunk and excreted the same water. We have shared precious resources that keep us alive. Likewise, our human DNA has been through each of us, has existed long before any of us, and ultimately came from the same primordial ooze of long ago, and is also essential to our continued existence as a species.

Or, in other words, while it’s fun to do genealogy to try to pin specifics on our ancestors, there’s really only one truth. We are all related to each other. We should all treat each other like family. And this circles back to the Mormons. While they might try to justify their interest in family history based on some sort of theological belief, they’re still on the right track. Yes — all family members are sealed to each other throughout history. The thing is, all humans are family.

That’d be all humans, no exceptions. And that, perhaps, is the most amazing thing about studying genealogy. All roads lead to the idea that borders, nationalities, differences in belief, and separations by geography are complete and total bullshit. There’s another religion that put it succinctly and nicely. They were founded about twenty years after Mormonism, and they’re known as the Bahá’í. Their motto is “One planet, one people, please.

I think that’s a motto we can all get behind right now. It’s one we need to. Otherwise, we’re not going to leave any people on this planet to carry on our DNA.