Taking credit for your ancestors

I am always rather amused when people in the now try and bask in the past glories (usually exaggerated and always presumed) of their ancestors. Especially when someone claims descent from some very famous person. As if they chose them. To be proud of a famous father or grandfather is perfectly reasonable but to claim credit in the now for their deeds in the past is illogical. To claim credit for ancestors even further back in time verges on the ridiculous.

I find it especially silly when someone proudly declaims an ancestor’s presumed qualities or famous deeds and misses that they themselves suffer by comparison. I am equally unimpressed when someone proudly claims a long line of descent. Every single one of the 7.3 billion alive today (poor-man, rich-man, beggar-man, thief) has exactly the same number of ancestors as everyone else. One can now bask not only in famous ancestors but even in their past shame or misery. Nowadays it has  become fashionable to try and gain “victimhood credits” for the sufferings and failings of long-gone ancestors. Entitlement culture has now given us “victimhood privilege” as a new phenomenon of the 21st century.

Nationalist groups in many countries who are insecure about their own identities often bask in the presumed past glories of ancient civilizations. The one common feature of all these “great civilizations is, of course, that they all failed. It applies to all the classical “great civilizations” in Egypt, China, India, Greece and Rome. Some lasted much longer than others but they all eventually collapsed. Civilizations and societies which succumbed to others gives rise to claims of current victimhood credits for the sufferings and the failings of their ancestors. To be descended from the Phoenicians or the Mayans or Aztecs is now creditable in the now. To be descended from slaves of 200 years ago or from the colonised 500 years ago allows victimhood credits to be claimed in the present. Nowadays, in India, the Hindu right tries to take credit for the exaggerated, and often quite dubious, wonders of past “golden ages”, some two or five (or even ten!) thousand years ago. Never mind that the “golden ages” collapsed due to their own stresses, faults and imperfections. Never mind that the “golden ages” were always followed by millennia of “dark and dismal ages”. Never mind that glorious ages were followed by inglorious times because the glorious ages all led to decadence and depravity. Never mind that the “dark ages” and their misery were a direct consequence of the preceding “golden ages”,

Every person alive today had some ancestor who was a thief, a murderer, a cheat, a ruler or a slave. That includes every claimed descendant of Genghis Khan (40 generations) or Confucius (80 generations), and every current member of any “aristocracy” or “royal lineage” (the Norwegian House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg from 1106 CE is probably the oldest recorded). There is nobody alive today who can even presume to trace a direct line of descent for more than about 40 generations. Even the most detailed line of descent leaves out more ancestors than are included. In practice nobody has a record of all their ancestors for more than about 10 generations and very few for more than 5. And if we want to go back to the heyday of ancient Greece (500 BCE) we would need 125 generations. And to reach back to the first cities ever we would need 500 – 600 generations. Modern humans started around 10,000 generations ago.

Every person alive today has more ancestors who were quite ordinary and forgettable than famous ones. There are more villains in each person’s ancestry than there are “good guys”. Basking in the fame or the shame of ancestors is about as silly as the human mind allows. There is no person alive today who does not have an ancestor who was an illiterate, speechless, murderous, selfish, tree-swinging ape.


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