The art of Kevin Blythe Sampson



Why do we care about our ancestors? - Science -

This article is an edited excerpt from the new book "Ancestors & Relatives," from Oxford University Press.

Why do we consider Barack Obama a black man with a white mother rather than a white man with a black father? What are the implications of knowing, as we now do, that chimpanzees are genetically closer to humans than they are to gorillas? Why did the Nazis believe that unions between Germans and Jews would produce Jews rather than Germans? Are sixth cousins still family?

In order to even address, let alone answer, such questions, we must first examine our unmistakably social visions of genealogical relatedness. What we need, in other words, is a sociological understanding of ancestry and descent.

As evident from the wide popularity of the television series “Who Do You Think You Are?” and the dozens of websites (such as, Family Tree DNA, and FamilySearch) and software programs designed to help people construct their family trees and discover hitherto unknown ancestors and relatives, we certainly have a tremendous fascination with genealogy. Every day thousands of “root seekers” comb libraries, cemeteries, and the Internet in an effort to quench their seemingly insatiable “thirst for tracing lineages.” Genealogy may indeed be “the second most popular American hobby after gardening and the second most visited category of Web sites after pornography.”


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Wednesday, Oct 19, 2011 8:00 PM Eastern Standard Time

I’m a writer who doesn’t write

I'm writing constantly in my head. How can I find the time to put these things on paper?

Cary Tennis

(Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I have been formulating a letter to you on and off for the last year, as I would greatly appreciate your thoughts. This is the first time I have actually taken pen to paper (so to speak). I hope to be concise, but feel it is unlikely given the nature of my question. It regards the degree to which a Writer can write as a hobby and be satisfied, without disrupting all other aspects of life.

Much to the annoyance of your readers, and perhaps you, I feel the need to give some back story. First, the present. I am a scientist, a wife and a mother of three children. For all but a dalliance that lasted a couple of years, I am and have always been a Writer who doesn’t write (credit to John Irving, who first articulated that very apt concept). How do I know I am a Writer? Well, perhaps a better description is that I am a storyteller. Since I was a child of maybe 11 or 12, perhaps younger, I have spent almost the entirety of my interstitial moments making up stories. Some of them terrible, some of them interesting, all of them amusing to me in some way. It seems to be something my brain needs to do to relax. If I have more than 30 seconds, I am creating or revising a scene of some kind. I am writing or revising dialogue, organizing story arcs, imagining how to verbalize emotions. So just as some people read compulsively in every spare moment they have, I write in my head. For a long time, perhaps even until graduate school, I romantically viewed myself as an observer of life (versus a participator). Likely this was a protective mechanism. Still, I observed and I created and I lived vicariously through my own imagination. Oddly, I did have a social life, with friends, boyfriends and much merriment so I was participating to a degree. State of mind, I guess.

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Cary Tennis

Why do we care about our ancestors? - Science -