Sunday, August 26, 2007

Who's Your Daddy?

It's an intriguing question, and not just because this is the Red Sox nation and we are locked in another struggle for the pennant with the dreaded Yankees in the final weeks of the season.

In one case, at least (well, three that we did not know about), the answer is James Brown. Turns out that the "Godfather of Soul" was also, as a New York Times reporter put it, a "Father Many Times Over." "Both fans and lawyers have been hard-pressed to keep up with the revelations concerning his multiple marriages and offspring (legitimate or other).

In another case, it's the czar. In August,
An archaeologist in Yekaterinburg, the city where the royal Romanov family was imprisoned and then murdered, said clues left by a leader of the family’s assassins had led investigators to a makeshift grave where they found the possible remains of the czar’s son, Aleksei, and one of his daughters.

The remains were of persons of the appropriate sex and age, and scientists planned to confirm the identification through DNA testing. It may be a tough sell, however, as the report went on to suggest, for no amount of scientific proof will convince some people:
"The leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church has never fully acknowledged that the remains of the czar were discovered in 1991, even though scientists conducted extensive DNA tests, using samples from relatives of the royal family, that appeared to prove their authenticity."

[Aside: The reporter's use of the terms, "murdered" and "assassins," reflects timid modern sensibilities; the proper term should nonetheless be: "executed." When a dynasty claims to rule on the basis of biology--genealogy and genetics--it should come as no surprise that their opponents sometimes choose to end its rule by "biological" means, as well.]

And then, of course, if we're talking about a great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great granddaddy  there was the revelation that Barack Obama is distantly related to President George W. Bush, and via his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great granddaddy, to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Why DNA here? The study of DNA evidence, now familiar from criminal investigations and medical research, has become increasingly prominent in the historical field, as well. Its application in historical forensics (as in the case of the Romanov family) and the pursuit of individual genealogical history--popularized, for example, in the PBS television series on "African American Lives" (two installments, 2006, 2008)--has probably garnered the most attention. However, it is arguably most intriguing and productive when used to investigate "deep" history and the patterns of human evolution. The micro- and macrohistorical applications alike are moreover coming to play an ever greater, but by no means unproblematic, role in debates over ethnic and cultural identity. As a result, both aspects of the question will receive regular coverage here.

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James Brown Update, November 2007:
As the New York Times Notes on the News reports:
A few months ago, trustees for Mr. Brown’s estate revealed that DNA testing has turned up at least three adult children, born out of the wedlock, who have filed for a piece of the estate even though they are not named in his will, which was drafted in 2000.

The heirs he did name in his will, furious over being left a rather meager inheritance of “personal items” they say amount to his “pots and pans,” have filed a lawsuit against the estate.

James Brown Update, July 2008:
The saga continues (although the reporter's attempt to employ the metaphors of twisting and tangling itself becomes contorted): "Like the tangled knot that was the life of the flamboyant Mr. Brown, who had multiple wives, consorts, children and grandchildren, some with unproven paternity, his estate is also in a twist." On 9 July, "a state appeals court judge in South Carolina approved a surprise request by the two former business managers" to halt Christie's auction of his possessions.

Obama update (March 2008), "The Candidates As Cousins Much Removed":
Next time you're considering whether to run for president, don't forget to weigh the value of the fast and free genealogical research that comes with candidacy, guaranteed to uncover your ancestral connection to a modern-day celebrity -- or at least a minor historical figure.

Turns out that Obama is in addition related to Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, and James Madison--as well as Brad Pitt. The article also mentions the ancestry of Hillary Clinton and John McCain. In case you were wondering, it helpfully adds, "Genealogical data, experts caution, should not be used by voters to evaluate a candidate." (To be sure. But could it be any worse than the method by which they made their choice in 2004?).

Romanov update, April 2008: "Scientific tests have confirmed that bones found last year in Russia belong to the two missing children of Tsar Nicholas II, Russian officials say."

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