walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

definition of parent

I was tempted to get into the whole what-is-a-parent question when I posted about Fischer v Zollino. I didn't; I felt like the post was long enough as it was. The short form of the rant is: we had a definition of what makes a father a father and now we have a different definition of what makes a father a father. Under the old definition, there were rituals and records. Under the new definition, there are DNA samples. It's not that we only ever had _one_ definition and now it has changed; we've always had multiple definitions. It's more that the default definition has switched places with one of the alternate/must be explained definitions. And I don't have a problem with that happening, in general.

In specific, however, I _do_ have a problem when people take a default definition (whether it is what-it-means-to-be-gay or what-it-means-to-be-a-parent or what-it-means-to-be-female or what-it-means-to-be-christian or whatever) and attempt to enforce it across time and space where _it is not_ or _it was not_ the default definition.

So: novels written in an era where female-hot-bod defaults to big boobs with protruding clavicle bones (and if one has to be sacrificed it's likely to be the boobs) about an era where female-hot-bod defaults to the well-upholstered (think Lillian Russell) in which the super-hot main character looks suspiciously like the former and not really at all like the latter, and then the women hate her but the men, they have the lust, are an example applying a default inappropriately. A particular novel like this would be one thing; hosts of them are an indication of a problem.

Genealogy exists in a state of tension with past ideas of the past (e.g. confusing patronymics with surnames), present ideas of the past (e.g. that people viewed the husband of the mother as the father unless something really showed otherwise, and then did so anyway, if the husband of the mother recognized the child as his own. For example, a man who married a woman with an illegitimate five year old child thereby became the legitimate father of that child, if he so declared at the time of the marriage -- even if he'd never her met her until a few months before, at least in some jurisdictions) and current ideas (e.g. DNA tests prove who the father _really_ is).

I don't necessarily have a problem with advocating for a certain kind of genealogy per se (I'm an advocate for fuzzy match, comprehensive and iterative error checking, myself, and a big believer in doing maternal and paternal lines without preference, but I accept that other people do things in different ways). However, I _do_ have a problem with advocating a certain kind of genealogy by attacking other kinds of genealogy.

And this post really set me off this morning.


I like the blogger and there's some reason to suspect he's being deliberately provocative here. He succeeded. The title questions the validity of family trees that match paper over genetics. He fluffed the NPE question badly, altho it is hard to blame him for doing so because this is a subject area that is not well studied and full of Telephone-like transmission of bad data.


"The Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, which is based in Salt Lake City, now has a genetic and genealogical database covering almost 100,000 volunteers, with an overrepresentation of people interested in genealogy. The non-paternity rate for a representative sample of its father-son pairs is less than 2 percent."

I think this is the correct number to use as a genealogist -- after all, the survey overrepresented genealogists! There are bigger numbers out there, but they are not well sourced and/or they cover unusual groups of people. The 10% figure, IIRC, derives from a study of NPEs in a population of people in which the men were suspicious that they weren't the father (but feel free to go dig it out and point me at the real source).

If you use this number, there's no reason to believe a typical family tree is broken by genetic standards -- by the time the numbers are in your favor for finding an NPE, you're out of the range of the instrument that the blogger has selected to detect NPEs.

More importantly, family trees in which the paper doesn't match the genetics ARE NOT BROKEN, except if you choose to adopt genetics as a sole basis for genealogical relationships. And that is importing a highly specific and very modern definition of genealogy deep into the past. I'm not sure _why_ people think this is reasonable, but it's right up there with writing a novel set in the Netherlands in 1600 or thereabouts and having the female protagonist be depicted as scarecrow-like but super hot once she gets her makeover.

I'm all in favor of using genetics in genealogy and will probably get around to doing some myself. Eventually. Megan Smolenyak has an awesome chapter in _Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing_ about her uncle turning out to be her father's half-brother, and no one knew until Smolenyak decided to do a bunch of testing of her relatives in an effort to determine whether the autosomal DNA tests could really do what they claimed to do (one of the many reasons why I Heart Megan Smolenyak, along with virtually every other genealogist, amateur or otherwise). But it is also worth pointing out that genetic testing is most effective at exposing relatively recent NPEs. Genealogy is already a bit of a dodgy activity. Suggesting that anyone who wants to "fix" their "broken" "tree" needs to run right out and rope all their relatives into submitting yDNA samples is _really asking for trouble_. At least Smolenyak handled the potential problems with sensitivity and grace. This blogger is just pointing a bunch of comparative young-uns as the family closet full of skeletons and saying, "go get 'em".

I can't even get my second cousins to respond in writing to questions like, "Did you know ID and Amy were first cousins?" -- and that's fully documented.
Tags: genealogy

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