Monday, 3 October 2016

We're all descended from slave owners

A recent Guardian article made a dark comment about the past of the British royal family. Jamie Doward tells us
Most royals are proud that they can trace their lineage back centuries. But princesses Beatrice and Eugenie may be reluctant to delve too far into their past. New analysis reveals that Prince Andrew’s daughters are the direct descendants of a major slave-owning family.
I've got a bit of news for Jamie. He too is a descendant of a major slave-owning family.

You may wonder how I know this, because I've never met Jamie, nor do I know anything about him or her. But I can make this claim with confidence because we all are descendants of major slave-owning families. One of the fascinating revelations in Adam Rutherford's book, A Brief History of Everyone Who Has Ever Lived, is that if you are of European origins, then you are a descendant of everyone alive at the start of the eleventh century who has living descendants. Every one of them. And plenty of them would have been slave-owning families.  (If you aren't of European origin, don't feel smug - the same goes for your ancestry, it's just the timescale may not be identical.)

On the plus side (if that's the right way to look at it), Jamie and the royals (and the rest of us) are also descended from slaves. And kings and queens. In case you doubt this can be the case, it's all about the combinatorial explosion. Go back a couple of dozen generations and if all our ancestors were unique we'd need many more than were alive back then. In reality family trees are not the neat linear things we are familiar with from genealogy - they are far more tangled and messy.

I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of looking back into ancestry and feeling pleased or guilty about what is found. We are not responsible for the behaviour or culture of our forebears. And the reality of our genetic background shows just how silly it is to think otherwise.

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