It began a fortnight last Saturday. I had settled down for an evening in front of my computer, intending (as I do on occasion) to get to the bottom of these stories one hears about the possibility of cultivating better, bigger and healthier potatoes in one’s back garden. Not that a more presentable output from my modest potato patch could be expected to augment the family’s nutritional intake to any significant extent, let alone break national horticultural records. I merely cherish a hope that my annual harvest of tubers – small, greenish, full of wormholes and not entirely welcome in the kitchen – may one day be replaced by something more appetising. It seems worth a try.
It was while I was thus engaged that the telephone rang. From somewhere out on one of the western isles a sepulchral voice enquired whether it was true that I had busied myself with genealogical research. I could not entirely deny it. There had indeed been a period in my life, as I grew a little older, when I collected a number of old birth certificates and wandered around the occasional cemetery, in order to put together a very simple family tree. To my caller, the modesty of my achievements was of no consequence; I was clearly blessed with a degree of genealogical ambition. Having extracted a little information from me regarding the antecedents of my spouse, the caller expressed his satisfaction and rang off, and I was free to return to my potatoes.
For a while, that is. No more than a couple of hours later my e-mail began to complain that it was overwhelmed with incoming material. The data deposited on my electronic doorstep proved to consist of family trees by the dozen, many somehow interlinked, but all too extensive for my comprehension. I deposited them in an electronic archive for later perusal, put them firmly out of my head, and retired to bed with a cup of cocoa.
Thirty-six hours passed peacefully, but then the telephone rang once more. Was I not thrilled out of my senses, asked the sepulchral voice, by the revelations before me? I vaguely excused myself for my failure to examine his material promptly, pleading other commitments. No matter, the voice was now all set to prepare me for the discoveries it had made. Had I not observed how closely my family was linked to Henrik Ibsen? Dig a little further, I was urged, and I would soon encounter the likes of Karen Blixen and Roald Dahl. Music? I would be delighted to see how we were related to Ludwig van Beethoven, to say nothing of Edward Elgar. And there was more than a suspicion that I carried on my person the genes of Martin Luther, all of five hundred years ago….
As I said, I have at times dabbled in genealogy, but I have also developed a degree of suspicion regarding its more ambitious ramifications. Somewhere we are no doubt all related to one another, even if we have to go back to Adam (or to Neanderthal Man, if we prefer) to prove it. There was a time, not very long ago, when even the most ambitious family historian was dependent on gravestones and church registers to get even an inkling of these things, but today the internet is jam-packed with effervescent messages from genealogical research agencies which, for a (sometimes fairly substantial) price will provide all the clues one might wish for. Obituaries from The Times of 1788? No problem. A list of Italian families disembarking at New York in 1832? Gladly, sir. Just pay.
But that, it would appear, is no more than a modest pointer to what is just around the corner. With DNA techniques it now proves to be frighteningly easy and correspondingly tempting to venture far further back in time. Is it not true that somewhere in England at least one gentleman has been identified whose DNA matches that of King Richard III, who died in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and who has recently been exhumed from beneath a car park? Remarkably, the gentleman’s name is Ibsen, which (given the tale that my modest family may indeed have a link to the great Henrik) might tempt me to engage in speculation…..but let me keep my feet firmly on the ground. My current suspicion is that DNA trails are only the start. If DNA can take us back five centuries, I suspect that someone, somewhere, is going to work out a technique that will carry things back still further. To Abraham perhaps, or to Adam and Eve themselves. But somehow, as one acquires a billion forefathers, the fun will surely evaporate. If I am indeed somehow related to Martin Luther, then his genes will still be no more than a millionth part of me. Inside me, they will have to compete with a million others, no doubt many of them derived from folk who were entirely worthy, but were nonentities all the same; and what if, somewhere among the million, I also carry the inheritance of Jack the Ripper or Dr Crippen?
All in all, I am better off if I choose to concentrate on my potatoes. But, wait a minute – don’t potatoes have DNA as well? Perhaps, if I really want to improve my harvest, it is there that I should be looking…..
Photo: Potato flowers by Keith Weller (source: USDA)