Sunday, July 08, 2012


Sykes, as I noted, got his view of America from movies and the biases of social science academics.  There's noting wrong with getting your view of America from movies, so long as you recognise that, have enough self-observation to see it. Such as, when dining in a Chicago Italian restaurant, speculations whether gangsters were here in the 30's are naive and rather a private fancy.  I'm in favor of such private fancies, so long as you know them for what they are - like Zonker Harris admitting that his new British accent comes from Monty Python records.  When we went to England, we were fully in the perspective of Anglophilic Americans who had read a great deal and believed in an Albion that was passing, if not already past.  Because of that naivete, we announced our romanticism, did not say "Pip, pip!" and noted that the shrines which were deeply important to us - Watership Down, the Eagle and Child, James Herriot's office - were noted, but unimportant to current residents.

Perhaps Americans have had it mentioned so often that we are asses when traveling abroad that some of us are hypersensitive to it now.  Visitors here might not have that filter.

Nonetheless, it is not a problem that Bryan Sykes is an ass while taking a road adventure with his son, then his wife, while visiting America.  It's mildly charming, actually, and he is welcome to it.  But said personal trip should not be cluttering up a book for which one pays cash money hoping to learn about American genes.

I got sucked in.  His knowledge of Kennewick Man and the Hopi controversies suggested to me that Sykes would know at least general information about Americans and their genealogical studies.  I admit I assume that British academics are familiar with Fischer's Albion's Seed, or at least its premise, thought there is of course no reason why they should; it's a side trip for them. (If you are a reader of this blog, however, I suggest you read it.  I don't see how anyone can claim to have any understanding of colonial history without it.  Not that it is flawless, but it is necessary.)

Thus, when Sykes asks for some members of the New England Genealogical Society (Newbury St, Boston) who have a traced ancestor before 1700, and is surprised when he gets over 400, I suddenly realise this is a person who has no idea whatsoever what he is talking about outside his area of expertise.  He was hoping for half-a-dozen.  He could have gotten half-a-dozen immediately if he had specified a boat and a year.  And that year would have been between 1620 and 1642, BTW, not a vague "before 1700."

This pattern persists wherever he goes in America.  Some southern whites have an African or even two in their genealogy, and African-Americans usually have more than one European.  The French and Spanish descendants have more Native American genes than the English and Germans.  No, really?  We're shocked!  Such an idea has never crossed our minds before!  Does he not know the basic European colonial pattern throughout the world, of Northern Europeans tending away from intermarriage and southern Europeans accepting it? That's fine if you're not a genetics researcher, but if you are...?  Isn't that, um, undergraduate obvious, whether from Anthro 101, Soc 101, or History 101?

Okay, I'll summarise that rant and then stop.  There were movie stereotypes of the 40's-60's about American history.  Since then, people who have been to college have been told that's not right, and given different stereotypes to believe. Those folks have embedded the new stereotypes in the highschool textbooks since, oh, 1990.  Sykes notes these new stereotypes as if they are new information which Americans must be informed of right away.

This is related to the academic bias.  This is perhaps less blameable, as American academics, who would be his main points of contact, would reinforce this.  He thinks there is nothing very different in the Native American creation myths and the Genesis ones which the Europeans brought.  That is exactly the type of incredibly stupid statement that only an academic could subscribe to.  Even if one believes that Genesis is pure hogwash, with only occasional insights into actual history, a truly objective observer would note that there is no implied sex with magical animals leading to the creation of humans and the natural world.  There is a passing mention of sex with gods stuck in there, but mostly important today as entertainment from watching fundamentalists try to deal with that.  It's an older chunk that surfaces in the stew when it is boiling, and moderns wonder whether it's edible, nutritious, flavoring - what?

If one wants to note that the whole snake thing, plus the sex with gods, suggests that the Jewish stories were originally like the Korean, or Native American, or Papuan, or Nordic stories, I would say that's the point.  3000 years ago, the Jews had already figured out "Ya know, that snake thing?  Maybe there's a better way of looking at that.  Because it's creepy.  Let's keep our audience really clear on the idea - mention it specifically - that Adam didn't have sex with the animals, and the whole thing is really about understanding good and evil." The difference is::: yeah, it's the same origin, but we left that behind 3000 years ago.  Equating that with Native myths of always having been there, so they don't want blood tests to find out what their ancestry is, is an enormous stretch.  It's taking a 1% correspondence and saying that's the whole thing.

Not very, uh, scientific, Bryan.  You've been hanging around with social scientists trying to distance themselves from all this primitive god-stuff for too long.  The obvious eludes.

Let me reverse field.  It's clear that I would love to run into the Sykes's and share a road trip with them.  I had similar experiences, observations, and feelings on my looking-at-colleges trips with my three oldest.  (Those are, BTW, among the best memories of my entire 59 years.)  It would be a hoot to travel with them.  But it has nothing to do with American DNA, and his observations, if no worse than mine, are also no better.  He makes a banal observation about Obama and healthcare, which he thinks should be telling.  Okay, there are American liberals who agree with him.  But that still doesn't get around the point that there are a half-dozen objections a barroom companion could raise, and he hasn't really thought this through.  He hasn't stood back from himself and asked "are these ideas really defensible?"

More to the point, it's not what the book was advertised to be about.


Gringo said...

Thus, when Sykes asks for some members of the New England Genealogical Society (Newbury St, Boston) who have a traced ancestor before 1700, and is surprised when he gets over 400, I suddenly realise this is a person who has no idea whatsoever what he is talking about outside his area of expertise.

Indeed. Would he be surprised to find out that members of the American Psychological Association are interested in psychology?

Another point is that members of the New England Genealogical Society comprise a small percentage of those New Englanders with a pre-1700 traced ancestor.

I had childhood peers with local ancestors whose acts during the Revolutionary War had merited statues at the State Capitol. Yet I didn't know about the statues until well into adulthood. No big deal.

With a similar level of expertise on New England sports, he would be surprised to find out that people east of the Connecticut River identify with the Red Sox.

Texan99 said...

Albion's Seed was great.

I never realized until recently that there were people who, for ideological reasons, rejected the notion that Amerindians came over from Asia. (It makes them less authentic, or something?) I ran across the idea while on some kind of guided tour in the Southwest; the guide made a sort of smirking reference to the fact that her people didn't necessarily buy off on all that scientific stuff about the maximum age of human settlements in North America. Kind of cast a pall on the reliability of the rest of her presentation.

Hey. Do you suppose Sykes would be shocked or thrilled to learn of new scholarship suggesting that all humans came out of Africa? Someone needs to inform him immediately, because the racist conservatives in America have been trying to keep a lid on the news.

james said...

Would "her people" be Amerindian or Mormon? Or a 4004BC believer?

Texan99 said...

Amerindian. Apparently it was some kind of point of pride to her to believe that they'd always been here.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, some Native tribes have stories from the elders recounting a journey to get to this place, and others maintain they have been in place forever. It pays to remember that Native tribes do not all believe the same things, and they emphatically did not believe the same things centuries ago. A pan-Indian consciousness is very recent, creeping into existence in the late 19th C.

The Cherokee were farmers, and considered themselves to have much more in common with white people than with the wild, primitive hunters, for example. We retrospectively impose our categories on previous generations.

Sykes would be fully up on out-of-Africa and all that - far better than the rest of us. It is because of this that his blindness about America caught me by surprise. When he knows he has to rely only on the data, he does it brilliantly. But when it comes to understanding America, then movies, and the opinions of social science academics (or other A&H tribe members) get in first and he believes them. He is a data guy. I think he'll get it over time on any individual issue. But there will be a lag at each point, waiting for the data to push out the myth.

karrde said...

RE: ancestry studies.

I currently live in the Midwest, and know about 50% of my ancestry in North America. (One side of my family tree has been researched extensively...I can name the year, and have decent confidence on the ship-name, when my most distant ancestor arrived in Boston.)

If Sykes wanted to argue that interest in genealogy is rare in the United States, he might have a point. If the family has been in the States long enough that there is no living memory of the emigration, the interest in genealogy declines.

But the United States and the Colonies existed during the age of Literacy. Almost every town has records of marriages/burials/births for most of its history. Anyone who wants to study genealogy can rapidly find a great deal of information.

If Sykes missed that fact, then he missed something really fundamental about the difference between North America and Europe.

Sam L. said...

One of my aunts researched our family. Our last name shows up in 1815 out of nowhere. The line he married into goes back to ~850AD.

Texan99 said...

Oh, I knew Sykes would be aware of the out-of-Africa theory. I was just making fun of his hypersensitivity to "tainted blood" sorts of issues. I've always found those particularly creepy. I can't disassociate them from the crazy Nazi rules about Jewish forebears. Eek! I have an African ancestor! Is that how he imagines most Americans think?

In a standard psych test someone administered to me decades ago, I ran across the statement, which I was supposed to agree/disagree with: "I have bad blood." I had no idea what to make of it. How could someone believe he had bad blood? What would it mean? Something medical? Something racial? Just creepy.

Genealogy interests me as a way of tracing historical movements of peoples, but not as a way of obsessing over who might be in the woodpile -- as if we could ever be sure who all our ancestors were, when doubling the sample in every generation expands the group so fast in just a few years.

Anonymous said...

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