The World’s Largest Family Tree Is Really Just a Map of Colonialism


Mar 8, 2018


Last week, the world’s largest family tree was revealed. Comprising 13 million people, and crowdsourced from profiles on the platform Geni.com, the first scientifically vetted tree of this size contains “the stories of whole countries and, at the risk of sounding grandiose, even all of humanity,” writes Sarah Zhang, over at The Atlantic.

At the risk of sounding like a downer, it really only contains the story of colonialism.



Video courtesy MyHeritage and Columbia University

On an empirical level, it’s an impressive exercise (for anyone who hasn’t heard of the record-keeping at Gaia… or Benaris… or Hrishikesh…). The researchers downloaded 86 million public profiles from Geni.com, one of the web’s most popular genealogy sites, and used mathematical graph theory to organize and analyze the data. Smaller family trees emerged and combined into a single tree of 13 million people, spanning 11 generations. (Genealogists estimate it would take going back 65 generations more to find an ancestor common to all of humanity.)

Insights around marriage and mobility patterns have obviously emerged. For instance, between 1800 and 1850, people in the West traveled farther than ever to find a mate, but were more likely to marry a fourth cousin or closer, suggesting social norms, rather than rising mobility, may have led to the change in consanguineous marriage.

It’s understandable that any historian with a head for data is excited. But the biggest insight this data provides is the one no one is talking about: that it reinforces a skewed Western narrative of human history. Such is the ardour for big data and human connection, that researchers seem happy to overlook the legacy of invasion and violence this family tree oversaw and the million more stories — the other, perhaps larger, family trees — they subjugated. Not to mention the discarded twigs produced by rape, a not uncommon tactic in conquest.

Yaniv Erlich, the Columbia University geneticist-turned-chief science officer of MyHeritage.com, the parent site of Geni.com, who led the development of this largest family tree, sees a world of possibilities, namely through mapping DNA to heritage and thus reveal genetic influences on conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and more. Already, his team has concluded that genetic inheritance is responsible for longevity only by an average extension of five years.

Erlich has, in fact, shared his own genome online to aid in this pursuit.

“I feel like I don’t have a lot to risk in general,” Erlich told Zhang. “If you ask me do you want your search-engine data or data your ISP sees or your bank account versus your genome, your genome is actually quite—I don’t think it’s very interesting.”

But for populations historically excluded and categorized by the very family tree Erlich has compiled, based often on genetic traits outside their control (like skin color), genomic privacy may matter more.

The world’s largest, scientifically vetted family tree has emerged by analyzing data from one of the web’s most popular genealogy sites. But it only reinforces a Western narrative of human history.


Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor.


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