June 23, 2007

E Pluribus Unum

In today's mail was the latest Smithsonian Magazine; the highlight for me (regrettably, the piece does not appear to be online yet) was a brief essay by Richard Conniff (author of The Ape in the Corner Office) about genealogy (and pedigree--the two seem to go hand in hand), which Conniff views with a fair amount of disdain:

I say my skepticism has more to do with arithmetric.

Go back just ten generations, to about 1700, and in theory I have more than 1,000 direct ancestors. Back 20 generations, the number climbs to well over a million.

The precise numbers (thank goodness for the exponential expression calculator) are 1,024 direct ancestors (that is, tracing oneself backwards to mother and father, and their mothers and fathers, and so on) in around 1700 (assuming 30 year generations) and 1,048,576 direct ancestors around 1400. Go back to 1400 years before that, to the era of Greek cosmopolitanism and Roman rationalism, and the number rises to a staggering 73,786,976,294,838,210,000 direct ancestors, scattered across two millennia.

Imagine who may well have numbered among them -- soldiers and pirates, priestesses and prostitutes, heretics and inquisitors, realists and surrealists, romantics and logical positivists -- the possibilities are endless. It is comforting to know that chances are, I carry some genetic trace of accuser and condemned, of persecutor and persecuted, of sinner and censor, reactionary and radical, and an unknowable number of faceless, nameless forgottens who now have title to nothing -- not even their own dust.

Bernard Shaw (for me things always seem to come back to Shaw) once wrote, "I understand everyone and everything and I am nothing and no one." Perhaps it would have been more accurate to replace the first verb with the first person, present tense singular of "to be."

Posted by Ideofact at June 23, 2007 11:50 PM