April 6th, 2011

_Shaking the Family Tree, Buzzy Jackson (kindle), also, a few comments on Charlemagne

subtitled: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist

Short form: I enjoyed the book. It seems like it is aimed at and should find a wide audience that can both enjoy it and learn from it.

Longer form: Buzzy Jackson is slightly younger than me, but her parents are much younger than mine. Her mother's heritage was Ashkenazi -- coming over from Galicia a little later than my stepfather-in-law. In many circumstances, that would imply a complete blank wall of information, but her mother had a towns of origin and birth records and all kinds of stuff. Jackson's father's heritage was Colonial Virginia to Alabama and then Michigan (altho she doesn't know all this when she starts). Jackson's personal history is as a historian, so she's familiar with sitting in front of microfilm readers and puzzling out handwriting from centuries past.

This is one of my favorite kinds of non-fiction books: a nerdy person gets really interested in a topic, does some research, interviews some people, and shares both the process and the results in a book. There are some problems, notably that weird 250 greats confusion that should have been 250,000 greats -- a difference so vast it is completely incomprehensible. Jackson does go to Salt Lake City, eventually. She visits extended family. She finds really old grave sites. She joins a lineage society (DAR) and she goes on a genealogy cruise. But before she does any of that, she starts out on ancestry.com and goes to a public library outreach program by her local genealogical society, which she then joins.

Jackson engages in some genetic genealogical activity. She sends in her sample for a mitochondrial DNA analysis that confirms what she already knows about her mother's heritage. She has her father send in a sample for a Y-chromosome DNA analysis that helps confirm that a family tree someone offers her working down from Colonial Virginia is in fact the right group of Jacksons for her. She does the usual sidebars on Y Chromosome Adam and Mitochondrial Eve. She produces a variation on the everyone is descended from Charlemagne theme:

"Regardless, the mathematical laws governing genealogy predict that whether or not they know or care about their genealogy, 70 percent of living humans with French, German, Benelux, northern Italian, Swiss or English ancestors probably carry some trace of Charlemagne's DNA in their bodies."

I'm not happy with the sourcing on _any_ of the Charlemagne assertions. Recently, I was particularly disturbed by this one, perpetrated in the news release for Rohde et als highly questionable paper mentioned in earlier posts:

http://www.nature.com/news/2004/040927/full/news040927-10.html

(A news release that also includes this: "Rohde's simulation aims to include everyone alive today, and therefore relies on the assumption that no population has remained completely isolated for any significant length of time. Rohde is confident that this is the case; even Tasmania, once thought to be isolated by choppy seas, contains no people with purely Tasmanian blood." Well, it's good to know what the assumptions are, because they will surely also appear in the conclusions, however modified by what happened in between.)

FWIW, it would appear that Mark Humphrys is on a lot of address books for reporters looking for quotes and is always prepared to emit some form of the statement "If you're western, you're descended from Charlemagne." And as near as I can tell, the origin of the meme itself is probably Jack Lee, a math professor at my alma mater, the University of Washington. The calculation assumes random mating, and otherwise treats as independent variables things which are not independent.

But all this talk about Charlemagne is not really to the point. I'm a little sad that Jackson was so focused on the direct paternal line, and felt her genealogical research "click" when going through the process of joining DAR. I've been a lot more focused on finding more branches, and it seemed like she was just starting to appreciate the appeal of branching when the book came to an end. I suppose we can hope for a sequel.