The Royal We

The mathematical study of genealogy indicates that everyone in the world is descended from Nefertiti and Confucius, and everyone of European ancestry is descended from Muhammad and Charlemagne
More

Afew years ago the Genealogical Office in Dublin moved from a back room of the Heraldic Museum up the street to the National Library. The old office wasn't big enough for all the people stopping by to track down their Irish ancestors, and even the new, much larger office is often crowded. Because of its history of oppression and Catholic fecundity, Ireland has been a remarkably productive exporter of people. The population of the island has never exceeded 10 million, but more than 70 million people worldwide claim Irish ancestry. On warm summer days, as tourists throng nearby Trinity College and Dublin Castle, the line of visitors waiting to consult one of the office's professional genealogists can stretch out the door.

I suspect that many people have had a fling with genealogy somewhat like mine. In my office I have a file containing the scattered lines of Olsons and Taylors, Richmans and Sigginses (my Irish ancestors), that I gathered several years ago in a paroxysm of family-mindedness. For the most part my ancestors were a steady stream of farmers, ministers, and malcontents. Yet a few of the Old World lines hint at something grander—they include a couple of knights, and even a baron. I've never taken the trouble to find out, but I bet with a little work I could achieve that nirvana of genealogical research, demonstrated descent from a royal family.

Earlier this year I went to Dublin to learn more about the Irish side of my family and to talk about genealogy with Mark Humphrys, a young computer scientist at Dublin City University. Humphrys has dark hair, deep-blue eyes, heavily freckled arms, and a pasty complexion. He became interested in genealogy as a teenager, after hearing romantic stories about his ancestors' roles in rebellions against the English. But when he tried to trace his family further into the past, the trail ran cold. The Penal Laws imposed by England in the early eighteenth century forbade Irish Catholics from buying land or joining professions, which meant that very few permanent records of their existence were generated. "Irish people of Catholic descent are almost completely cut off from the past," Humphrys told me, as we sat in his office overlooking a busy construction site. (Dublin City University, which specializes in information technology and the life sciences, is growing as rapidly as the northern Dublin suburb in which it is located.) "The great irony about Ireland is that even though we have this long, rich history, almost no person of Irish-Catholic descent can directly connect to that history."

While a graduate student at Cambridge University, Humphrys fell in love with and married an Englishwoman, and investigating her genealogy proved more fruitful. Her family knew that they were descended from an illegitimate son of the tenth Earl of Pembroke. After just a couple of hours in the Cambridge library, Humphrys showed that the Earl of Pembroke was a direct descendant of Edward III, making Humphrys's wife the King's great-granddaughter twenty generations removed. Humphrys began to gather other genealogical tidbits related to English royalty. Many of the famous Irish rebels he'd learned about in school turned out to have ancestors who had married into prominent Protestant families, which meant they were descended from English royalty. The majority of American presidents were also of royal descent, as were many of the well-known families of Europe.

Humphrys began to notice something odd. Whenever a reliable family tree was available, almost anyone of European ancestry turned out to be descended from English royalty—even such unlikely people as Hermann Göring and Daniel Boone. Humphrys began to think that such descent was the rule rather than the exception in the Western world, even if relatively few people had the documents to demonstrate it.

Humphrys compiled his family genealogies first on paper and then using computers. He did much of his work on royal genealogies in the mid-1990s, when the World Wide Web was just coming into general use. He began to put his findings on Web pages, with hyperlinks connecting various lines of descent. Suddenly dense networks of ancestry jumped out at him. "I'd known these descents were interconnected, but I'd never known how much," he told me. "You can't see the connections reading the printed genealogies, because it's so hard to jump from tree to tree. The problem is that genealogies aren't two-dimensional, so any attempt to put them on paper is more or less doomed from the start. They aren't three-dimensional, either, or you could make a structure. They have hundreds of dimensions."

Much of Humphrys's genealogical research now appears on his Web page Royal Descents of Famous People. Sitting in his office, I asked him to show me how it works. He clicked on the name Walt Disney. Up popped a genealogy done by Brigitte Gastel Lloyd (Humphrys links to the work of others whenever possible) showing the twenty-two generations separating Disney from Edward I. Humphrys pointed at the screen. "Here we have a sir, so this woman is the daughter of a knight. Maybe this woman will marry nobility, but there's a limited pool of nobility, so eventually someone here is going to marry someone who's just wealthy. Then one of their children could marry someone who doesn't have that much money. In ten generations you can easily get from princess to peasant."

The idea that virtually anyone with a European ancestor descends from English royalty seems bizarre, but it accords perfectly with some recent research done by Joseph Chang, a statistician at Yale University. The mathematics of our ancestry is exceedingly complex, because the number of our ancestors increases exponentially, not linearly. These numbers are manageable in the first few generations—two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents—but they quickly spiral out of control. Go back forty generations, or about a thousand years, and each of us theoretically has more than a trillion direct ancestors—a figure that far exceeds the total number of human beings who have ever lived.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In