Two Cheers For Pinker On Genealogy…But What About Race?

Genealogy—the study of

who a person`s ancestors
are—is viewed by American
intellectuals as a quaint hobby of only individual
interest. But it`s actually one of the most
under-explored paths to better understanding humanity.

So I was quite pleased to see the cover
story in the August 6, 2007 issue of The New

Genealogy Craze in America: Strangled by Roots

[Free registration required, or read it

] by

Steven Pinker
, the Harvard psychologist and author
of the outstanding 2002 bestseller

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Pinker has
become perhaps the pre-eminent spokesman for the human
sciences. His next book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature,
will be
out in September.

I was
especially happy because Pinker`s article cogently
articulates many of the ideas about the

overlooked importance of kinship
that he and I
kicked around via email in the late 1990s, and which
have provided the basis for many of my
articles ever since.

In The
New Republic
, Pinker graciously credits me with
having forecast the present chaos in Iraq:

"In January 2003,
during the buildup to the war in Iraq, the journalist
and blogger Steven Sailer published an article in The
American Conservative
in which he

warned readers
about a feature of that country that

had been ignored in the ongoing debate
. As in many
traditional Middle Eastern societies, Iraqis tend to
marry their cousins. About

of all marriages are consanguineous
first or second

. A second cousin is someone who shares a
] … The connection
between Iraqis` strong family ties and their

tribalism, corruption, and lack of commitment
to an

overarching nation
had long been noted by those
familiar with the country. … Sailer presciently
suggested that Iraqi family structure and its mismatch
with the sensibilities of civil society would frustrate
any attempt at

democratic nation-building

Pinker also
notes how little highbrow thought is given to genealogy
these days:

"For all its

fascination, kinship is a surprisingly neglected topic
in the behavioral sciences. A

reading a textbook in psychology would get
no inkling that human beings treated their relatives any
differently from strangers. Many social scientists have
gone so far as to claim that

kinship is a social construction
with no connection
to biology."

In reality, we more easily

team up with our relations

"… blood relatives are likely to
share genes. To the extent that minds are shaped by
genomes, relatives are likely to be of like minds. Close
relatives, whether

raised together or apart
, have been found to be
correlated in intelligence, personality, tastes, and

This has profound social and political

"The overlap of genes among relatives
does more than make them similar; it … sets the
evolutionary stage for feelings of solidarity and
affection at the emotional level, and that in turn
shapes much of human life. In traditional societies,
genetic relatives are more likely to live together, work
together, protect each other, and adopt each other`s
orphaned children, and are less likely to attack, feud
with, and kill each other."

Despite its tremendous predictive power,
the genealogical perspective hasn`t caught on in

. Why not?

One technical issue that confuses people:
you need to be able to picture family trees in your
head. Yet, the messy-looking family tree loaded with
nephews and cousins that your uncle sends you in his

Christmas card
gives the wrong impression. To be
able to generalize about genealogy, you need to imagine
a cleaner, more abstracted diagram of your relation to
your biological ancestors.

Let`s take a look at a two different
types of family tree for, appropriately enough, Charles
Darwin`s family.


Darwin clan
has maintained a level of distinguished
achievement from the 18th Century into the 21st that few
other families can match, furnishing ten Fellows of the
famous Royal Society of scientists over

six straight generations

Wikipedia provides a

typical family tree
with Darwin in the fourth row
center. You can click on this yellow and blue image to
see a larger, more legible version, but it`s still a
seemingly shapeless mess.

While disorderly, this
common format is highly informative. It shows
some of Darwin`s many illustrious relatives, such as his
Bernard Darwin
, a lawyer who

pioneered golf writing
in the
London Times,
his great-nephew

Ralph Vaughn Williams
, the admired composer, and,
most relevantly, his half-cousin

Sir Francis Galton
, the polymath who founded, among
much else, the scientific study of human heredity.

Galton was perhaps inspired to begin his
inquiry into

Hereditary Genius
(the title of his pioneering
1865 book) by the fact that the one grandparent he
shared with his famous cousin was

Erasmus Darwin
, who had been the most noted doctor
in England and a prominent intellectual.

Still, for all the richness of its
content, few could glance at this convoluted diagram and
be reminded of such simple truths as that everybody has
two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents
and so forth.

In contrast, here is a schematic of the
family tree of

Charles Darwin
and his forebears as the scientist
himself might have pictured it:






William Darwin






Robert Darwin




Anne Waring







Erasmus Darwin



John Hill






Elizabeth Hill




Elizabeth Alvey








Robert W. Darwin


Charles Howard






Charles Howard




Mary Bromley







Mary Howard



Paul Foley






Penelope Foley




Elizabeth Turton









Charles Darwin

Thomas Wedgwood






Thomas Wedgwood




Mary Leigh







Josiah Wedgwood









Mary Stringer












Susannah Wedgwood


Thomas Wedgwood






Richard Wedgwood




Mary Hollins







Sarah Wedgwood









Susan Irlam














(Of course, while everybody has this same
structure of ancestors, the number of descendents

differs wildly.
Darwin, for instance, had

ten children
. Thus, family trees of descendents
can`t be standardized.)

Despite the elegance of this schematic,
some problems inherent in the study of ancestry leap

  • First:
    few people know every name in their family tree back
    more than a few generations.

Darwin is one of the more famous men in
history, and he lived in a culture obsessed with
pedigree. He himself came from eminently respectable
stock—besides his famous paternal grandfather, Erasmus
Darwin, his maternal grandfather

Josiah Wedgwood
founded in 1759 what remains today
the most famous

brand name
in fine china.

And yet, by the time we go back four
generations, we only know the names of 12 of Darwin`s 16

Another generation
back, and we are missing 14 of
the 32 names, including one on the more traditionally
posh paternal side of his family.

  • Second:
    cousin marriage is not exclusively confined to the
    Middle East.

Darwin`s grandfather Josiah Wedgwood, the

great potter
, married Sarah Wedgwood, a third
cousin. (Darwin himself married Emma Wedgwood, his first
cousin. Unsurprisingly, their children were

sickly and/or brilliant

  • Third:
    the sheer number of direct biological ancestors becomes
    mentally overwhelming the farther back you go in your
    family tree.

Ten generations in the past (at 25 years
per generation, that`s about 250 years ago), your family
tree has 1024 slots to fill. That`s too large a number
for most people to deal with. So, genealogists try to
simplify ancestry, often by just tracking the surname
through the direct male lineage. By way of illustration,
the Darwin family name has been tracked back to

William Darwin
who died in 1542.

Beyond ten generations ago, the ancestor
overload keeps getting worse, doubling with each
generation. Twenty generations ago, you had room for
ancestors—a meg. Thirty generations—a gig. Forty
generations (roughly around 1000 AD), you had more than
a trillion openings for ancestors.

  • Fourth:
    nobody ever had a trillion separate living ancestors
    … obviously.

As Pinker explains:

"But the fact that our
ancestors never covered the surface of the Earth ten
deep shows that medium-distant-cousin marriages must
have been the rule rather than the exception over most
of human history… "

For example, due to
Darwin`s Wedgwood grandparents being third cousins, the
64 slots in his family tree six generations before him
were filled by only 63 separate people, with one
Wedgwood doing double duty.

Because travel was
so slow in the past, even in cultures that didn`t
endorse cousin marriage a boy was more likely to marry
the girl next door. So, couples often ended up related
to each other by many genealogical pathways that added
up to the equivalent of being a close relation.


Robin Fox
, author of the classic Kinship and Marriage,

"If we could only get
into God`s memory, we would find that eighty per cent of
the world`s marriages have been with at least second
cousins. In a population of between three and five
hundred people, after six generations or so there are
only third cousins or closer to marry. During most of
human history, people have lived in small, isolated
communities of about that size, and have in fact
probably been closer to the genetic equivalent of first
cousins, because of their multiple consanguinity."

Sounds creepy. But
Pinker says:

"This chronic incest, by the way, did
not turn our ancestors into the

cast of Deliverance
. The degree of
relatedness, and hence the risk that a

harmful recessive gene
will meet

a copy of itself
in a child, falls off a cliff as
you move from siblings to first cousins to more distant

If you could plot
the actual unique individuals in your family tree, they
would initially fan out into the past, doubling with
each generation, just like the number of slots in the
family tree. But at some point in the past, the number
of individuals would start to get fewer in number,
ultimately forming a diamond-shaped rather than
fan-shaped family tree. Genealogists label this "pedigree


K.W. Wachtel
estimated that an Englishman born in
1947 would have had two million unique ancestors living
at the maximum point around 1200 AD, 750 years before.
There`d be a billion open slots in the family tree in
1200, so each real individual would fill an average of
500 places.

Pedigree collapse
would set in farther into the past
than 1200.

Pedigree collapse
delivers a profound implication about how the

biology of race
is rooted in the

biology of family
, even though so many fashionable
thinkers today claim race

doesn`t even exist
. (But in my

Random House Webster`s College Dictionary,
the first
definition of "race" is

"1. A group of persons related by common descent or
so it`s hard to see how it can`t

Why only two
cheers? Because, unfortunately, Pinker tries to avoid
discussing the relation between genealogy and race. So
his New Republic article is ultimately

Pinker echoes

Steve Olson
, author of

Mapping Human History
, who claims that everybody
living today has a common ancestor within the last few
thousand years. Pinker writes:

"The same arithmetic
that makes an individual`s pedigree collapse onto itself
also makes everyone`s pedigree collapse into everyone
else`s. We are all related–not just in the obvious sense
that we are all descended from the same population of
the first humans, but also because everyone`s ancestors
mated with everyone else`s at many points since that
dawn of humanity. … a single mating

between people from two ethnic groups
results in all
their descendants being related to both groups in

Well, that`s one
way of looking at it. But the

two Steves
are getting themselves bogged down in
essentially symbolic thinking—in which having one
ancestor from racial group X is seen as in some way just
as important as having millions of ancestors from racial
group Y.

Ironically, Pinker
makes gentle fun of genealogy hobbyists for getting
excited about finding that they are distantly related to
famous people:

"And before you brag
about the talent or courage you share with some
illustrious kinsman, remember that the exponential
mathematics of relatedness successively halves the
number of genes shared by relatives with every link
separating them. You share only 3 percent of your genes
with your second cousin, and the same proportion with
your great-great-great-grandmother."

But exactly the
same math explains why intellectuals shouldn`t get so
excited about the fact that, say, tens of millions of
white people in America are a

tiny bit black
. Neither means much.

The more
significant insight we can garner from the necessary
existence of pedigree collapse is not that everybody is
related to everybody else, but that every person is much
more related to some people than to other

Say that we somehow
knew the name of every single ancestor of Charles Darwin
who was alive 750 years before his 1809 birth. And say
that, somehow or other, one of Darwin`s two million
unique ancestors who populate the one billion open slots
in his family tree was, say,

, a

of the Kalahari Desert, from whom he was
descended by one pathway.

That would
certainly be interesting. But it wouldn`t be
in determining Darwin`s genetic
makeup—because he`d also turn out to be descended from,
say, William, a farmer in Wessex, by 500 different

And then there would be
Catherine and John and Ann and Mary and …

Add them all up
and, yup! Darwin would be, for all practical intents and
purposes, English rather than Bushman.

As I
reported earlier this year in
, Oxford
population geneticist Bryan Sykes estimates that the


living natives
of the British Isles arrived there,
on average, an astonishing 8,000 years ago, or 320
generations. Back that far, Darwin`s family tree would
have an unthinkably large number of slots to fill—a
number with 96 zeros—but the number of unique
individuals would be quite small.

In other words, we
can be sure that Darwin was, for all practical purposes,
racially English.

And that`s what`s
missing from Pinker`s otherwise superb article: an
explanation of how kinship means not just family, but


As we`ve seen,
pedigree collapse implies that when you go back enough
generations, inbreeding become the overwhelming fact of

And, as I pointed out in in 2002 in "It`s
All Relative: Putting Race in Its Proper Perspective
the most useful definition of a racial group is
partly inbred extended family".

Sure, the genealogical relationships between two random
members of a racial group are usually not close. But
they are numerous enough that they sum up to a
sizable amount.

We can see these hereditary similarities within races
all around us. The genetic anthropologist

Henry Harpending
of the U. of Utah has pointed out
that if he had never met his grandchildren before, he`d
have a hard time picking them out by sight from the
other children playing on the street. Yet, he`d have
very little difficulty visually distinguishing children
by race.

try this experiment with Darwins. On
the left is Charles Darwin and on the right is his beloved grandson Bernard Darwin, the golf
journalist. Notice the Darwin family genes?

Well, uh … maybe …

Perhaps you could
pick Bernard out as Charles` grandson if you had enough
pictures, but what is more immediately evident is that,
genetically speaking, they`re a couple of white guys.

According to

Harpending`s genetic math
, on average, people are as
closely related to other members of their subracial
"ethnic" group (e.g., Japanese or Italian) versus the
rest of the world as they are related to their
grandchildren or nephews and nieces versus the rest of
their ethnic group.

That`s highly
important to understanding how the world works.

With that caveat
registered, let`s let Pinker have the last word:

"… the almost mystical bond that we
feel with those whom we perceive as kin continues to be
a potent force in human affairs. It is no small irony
that in an age in which technology allows us to indulge
these emotions as never before, our political culture
systematically misunderstands them."

[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and

movie critic

The American Conservative
His website
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