Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

All in the family

Coming from the Wishful Thinking department, today we have a woman in Murrysville, Pennsylvania who claims she is the Virgin Mary's first cousin, 65 times removed.

I was sent the link to this story by a friend who knows my fascination with genealogy and my interest in goofy claims, and this certainly hits both pretty well.  In it, we read about Mary Beth Webb, who began her inquiry into her genealogy in 1999 shortly after her brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Like most of us who have done genealogical research, Webb started with census and other vital records, and used online resources like and Rootsweb.  But this evidently proved inadequate -- she began to run into dead ends, which genealogists call "brick walls."  I have several of these frustrating people in my own family tree, the most annoying of which is the direct paternal ancestor of my grandmother.  His name is recorded as John Scott in all of the records -- but a recent Y-DNA study of one of his patrilineal descendants proved beyond question that he was actually a Hamilton, allied to the Scottish Clan Hamilton of Raploch.  And interestingly... one of his grandsons was named Hamilton Scott, and a great-grandson was Hamilton Grim.

But we have been unable to find anything more about his origins, despite extensive research.

Perhaps, though, we should take a page from Webb's book.  Because when she became stymied by various long-dead ancestors, she adopted a novel method for researching her roots.  She simply asked her parents.

The "novel" part comes in because her parents were both dead at the time.

Fortunately for her, her cousin is a medium, and was happy to contact her parents for her, and (after his death) her brother.  And all three of the dear departed told her all sorts of details about her ancestors, because (after all) the whole lot of them were up in heaven with them.

I don't know if that'd work so well in my family.  I've got some seriously sketchy ancestry, including a guy who spent years in prison in New Jersey for "riot, poaching, and mischief," a Scottish dude who lost his soul to the devil in a game of cards, and a French military officer who almost got hanged for killing a guy he found in flagrante delicto with his wife.  So I might have better success if the medium tried contacting people down below, if you get my drift.

"Yes... great-great-great grandpa Jean-Pierre says to tell you hi, and to let you know you're a direct descendant of Attila the Hun.  Also, please send down an air conditioner and a six-pack of cold beer, because it's a bit toasty down here.  Thanks bunches."

But of course, Webb's relatives all were either nicer or luckier or both, so she got scads of heaven-sent information about her genealogy.  And after a bit of this kind of "research," she found out that she was a direct descendant of Joseph of Arimathea, who was allegedly the Virgin Mary's uncle.  According to Webb's calculations, this makes her Mary's first cousin 65 times removed.

The problem is, the whole thing about Descent From Antiquity (as genealogists refer to any claims of pre-medieval proven ancestry) is that the best historians don't consider much of it to be true, especially the European bit.  (There are, however, apparently people in China who can with a fair degree of certainty trace their ancestry back to Confucius, who was born over 2,500 years ago.  So that's kind of impressive.)

People of European and Middle Eastern descent, however, don't have it so lucky.  The time between the Fall of Rome and the beginning of the Medieval Age is seriously lacking in reliable documentation, and what we have in the way of such records stands a good chance of being (1) a forgery, or (2) a lie.  Or (3), both.  By the time the Medieval Age was in full swing, the Romans were looked upon as being a Golden Age, despite the fact that a good fraction of the nobility in ancient Rome seemed to have some major screws loose.  So there were lots of people claiming descent from the Emperors and Empresses to boost their own stature, with several proposed routes going the proconsul Flavius Afranius Syagrius, and thence to the Egyptian pharaohs and whatnot.

But some people one-up even Webb's claims, and trace their lineages all the way back to Adam and Eve.  I kid you not.  If you go into Rootsweb, you can do a search for people descended from Adam and Eve, and find thousands.

Now that's what I call descent from antiquity.

Sadly, even the descent from the Romans relies on poor historical research and lots of wishful thinking, as does Webb's claim to have proven descent from Joseph of Arimathea.  About as far back as anyone with European ancestry can reliably get is Charlemagne, which sounds cool but isn't because damn near everyone with European ancestry descends from him, because he was proficient at one other thing besides ruling most of Western Europe, which was shagging any women who were willing.

But honestly, that's really not that surprising.  Given the small size of the population back then, if you go back far enough (some geneticists say 1200 C.E. is sufficient), then you descend from everyone in your ancestral homeland who left descendants.  Put another way: prior to 1200 C. E., you can divide all of humanity into two groups; those who were the ancestors of most everyone of that particular ethnicity alive on the Earth today, and those who were the ancestors of no one.  So we're all cousins, really.  And if Joseph of Arimathea left progeny -- which no one knows for sure -- then chances are, Mary Beth Webb is his descendant.

But chances are so am I, and (if you have European or Middle Eastern ancestry), so are you.

But I don't know that because my dead relatives told me so, I just know it because of genetic studies and logic.  Which may be less cool, but is a damn sight more reliable than trying to get a direct line to great-great-great grandpa Jean-Pierre down in hell.


These days, I think we all are looking around for reasons to feel optimistic -- and they seem woefully rare.  This is why this week's Skeptophilia book recommendation of the week is Hans Rosling's wonderful Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.  

Rosling looks at the fascinating bias we have toward pessimism.  Especially when one or two things seem seriously amiss with the world, we tend to assume everything's falling apart.  He gives us the statistics on questions that many of us think we know the answers to -- such as:  What percentage of the world’s population lives in poverty, and has that percentage increased or decreased in the last fifty years?  How many girls in low-income countries will finish primary school this year, and once again, is the number rising or falling?  How has the number of deaths from natural disasters changed in the past century?

In each case, Rosling considers our intuitive answers, usually based on the doom-and-gloom prognostications of the media (who, after all, have an incentive to sensationalize information because it gets watchers and sells well with a lot of sponsors).  And what we find is that things are not as horrible as a lot of us might be inclined to believe.  Sure, there are some terrible things going on now, and especially in the past few months, there's a lot to be distressed about.  But Rosling's book gives you the big picture -- which, fortunately, is not as bleak as you might think.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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