23 March 2012

Genealogy problems persist after 79 years

Donald Lines Jacobus (1887-1970) was renowned as the dean of American genealogy of his day. In August 2009 I raised the ire of, and received an education from, several people who added comments to a posting suggesting some outdated genealogy books that should no longer be on the shelves of our public libraries. One of those I mentioned was Jacobus's "Genealogy as pastime and profession" published in 1968.

On Thursday Mick Southwick on his British & Irish Genealogy blog provided a link to a Jacobus article Is Genealogy An Exact Science? first published in The American Genealogist, Volume 10, Page 65 (October 1933). The article defuses the title question in the second line with the statement "there are no exact sciences."

He proceeds to a subjective evaluation of degrees of exactness and opines that "Genealogy, as one of the sciences in which human nature is a factor, is considered to be one of the less exact sciences."

Science is a human activity so human nature is always a factor. What Jacobus advocates is that "proper scientific methods" be pursued in genealogy. He adds that "no one who lacks a mathematical mind can hope to become a genealogist of the very first rank."

When Jacobus wrote "the paternity of every child in a human pedigree is a matter of faith, or belief, not of proved fact" in 1933 he did not anticipate genetic genealogy.

Today we should expect a genealogist of the very first rank, which should mean every professional genealogist, to know how to use the tools of genetic genealogy to "go behind (beyond) the official records." Today hiring a certified or accredited genealogist is no guarantee they are literate in genetic genealogy.

Jacobus ends the article by exploring reasons a scientific approach is not adopted: laziness, ignorance, expense and unpopularity, and concludes that "genealogy in this country today is very far from being an exact science." If understanding of DNA as a tool for genealogy is not a requirement for genealogy professionals are we today any closer to the scientific approach Jacobus championed 79 years ago?


Elizabeth Kipp said...

With so many good examples of family genealogy being totally altered with the results of yDNA studies, the need to do DNA studies should rank high in the tool kit that one uses to prove their family lines. In my Blake one name study, yDNA completely changed the way an entire group of Blake descendants now look at their ancestry having originally believed that they were descendant of the Jasper Blake family of New Hampshire (originally Wimbotsham Norfolk). Their results are now pointing towards an immigrant ancestor quite likely from Scotland/Northern Ireland arriving in Pennsylvania Colony in the 1700s rather than descendant of Jasper Blake who arrived in the 1600s in New Hampshire.

Yolanda Presant said...

There are many other things that people want to know about their families besides what race they come from. Perhaps we need to differentiate between the cultural history of our families and the science of genealogy. I don't think most people are thinking about science when they ask about their ancestors.

Unknown said...

Excellent post and topic Mr. Reid, I'm starting to think and wonder about family genealogy, and not just the so called "Social Media Genealogy" of some websites that proclaim they have your complete ancestry online.