Thursday, July 26, 2012

How Can I Prove My Mom?

Does genealogy enable you to prove who your parents were (let alone anyone else's)? Well, to coin a phrase, it depends.

(1) "Proof" in genealogy is not like "proof" in mathematics. If I had the power to re-boot genealogy from the beginning, I would abolish the word altogether and use something else, but we are stuck with it and its misleading connotations. In math, you can prove that in a right triangle the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares of the two other sides, and it will stay proved. In genealogy proof means, roughly, that you've looked at the relevant evidence, it all agrees (and what doesn't agree can be cogently explained away), and you've written a well-cited well-reasoned argument for your conclusion. (The more precise and thorough official version is here.) But even when you've done all that, there is no way to "prove" that some new piece of evidence will never come along and change your conclusion; that possibility always exists. (And, yes, this applies to DNA evidence too. DNA is a new and valuable tool, but it does not change genealogy into mathematics.)

(2) In real life there is biological parentage and there is social parentage. DNA speaks directly to the issue of biological parentage; other genealogical records document social parentage and usually presume (for instance) that the social children of a married couple are their biological children as well. The most marvelous manifestations of this assumption are Civil War widow's pension records, which routinely include affidavits from midwives attesting that they were present for the birth of little Johnny, and that the claiming widow was indeed his mother. (As if the midwife watched little Johnny from that day to this to see he wasn't switched!) This was an extreme attempt to get biological and social parentage to match up. They don't always, and we have to be alert to obvious and less-than-obvious clues when they don't.

Genealogy has roots in the efforts of royalty to make sure the biologically correct heir took over the crown, and later in the efforts of economic royalty to make sure the biologically correct heir took over the property or the company. This can place today's adoptees, foster children, and others in an anomalous position -- often causing them to dismiss genealogy and lineage societies altogether, or to stay in the fold and become vigorous dissenters from the "tradition" by which biological children take precedence. I can't settle this argument, but a little modesty about how well we can prove biological connectedness is surely in order.

If it's all about who we are, then nature and nurture both play a part. If the same people provided both, OK. If one set of people provided the nature and another set provided the nurture, then from a historical and personal point of view they are both important and both should be traced. (In my opinion those lineage societies who disallow adoptees have some 'splainin' to do.) We can't change the past, but we can deal with it.

Harold Henderson, "How Can I Prove My Mom?," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 26 July 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

I do not believe that as genealogists we are "stuck" with the too often misguided understanding of "proof." The Genealogical Proof Standard is a wonderful thing, but is most unfortunately named.

No respectable historian or social scientist uses the term in the same sense genealogists often do.

That one of the most influential genealogists of this generation frequently uses the term "proof" within quotation marks is a good sign that the name of the standard should be reconsidered.

You have correctly pointed out that the implications of using "proof" in the name go far beyond simple semantics, but to the integrity of the process itself.

Let's not be "stuck," let's move to a fuller understanding of the genealogical process for all.

William Flowers