Far from the tree: The illusions of genealogy

Carl Zimmer in The Globe and Mail:

For four seasons, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates has been hosting the genealogy television show Finding Your Roots. In each episode, Mr. Gates presents celebrities with a book full of research into their ancestry, drawing from genealogical records and genetic tests. On a recent show, Mr. Gates introduced the actor Ted Danson to one of his 18th-century ancestors, Oliver Smith of Connecticut. Mr. Danson learned how Mr. Smith defended his seaside town against the British during the Revolutionary War.

Mr. Danson proudly patted the page that chronicled Mr. Smith’s heroics. “Well done, well done,” he said. “I never imagined a one-of-me’s out there in the revolution.”

But when Mr. Danson turned to another page in his ancestry book, his mood swiftly shifted. Now he discovered that Oliver Smith bought a slave named Venture.

Mr. Danson fell silent. Mr. Gates tried cheering him up by pointing out that Mr. Smith later allowed Venture to purchase his own freedom.

More here.