Mixed Doublings

ROBERT BURRUSS

June 01, 1993|By ROBERT BURRUSS

Kensington. -- I'm single, over 50, and I don't have children. There was a time when that bothered me, not having a family and children.

One night I met a woman at a singles dance. Rapidly the conversation got into the usual strange terrain of overt and covert questions: What do you do (i.e., what is your social class and status)? Where do you live (social status and geographic accessibility)? Where are you from (national origins, ethnic roots, religion, tribal affiliation)?

When she asked (covertly) about my ethnic origins, I told her (overtly) that I am neither Caucasian nor Aryan. Since I can pass as European, she asked if I were Jewish. Semitic, yes, but not Jewish, I said, which intrigued her until she realized: Arab.

But where, she asked, did you get the gray-green eyes? Good question. Some of my relatives have red hair and fair skin with freckles. How did that northern trait get into my Semitic family? And what about my relatives with kinky hair, by what route did that southern trait arrive?

My mother says my ancestors were Phoenicians, the great traders of the Mediterranean, which might account for my pale eyes and relatively fair skin -- and the familial kinky hair too. For more than a thousand years those ancestral farers of the Sea of the Middle Earth were trading genetic material as well as spices and money all through northern Africa and southern Europe.

Later that night after the singles dance, I sat alone at the Bethesda Tasty Diner with hot cakes and eggs and sausage, thinking about ethnic origins. I took out my calculator, which I carry everywhere in case I get inspired toward the following kind of calculation. In this instance I calculated a rationalization that puts my genes in an acceptable Big Picture perspective. It goes like this:

I have two parents and four grandparents and eight so on. Assuming that successive generations are separated by 25 years, then the four generations in the hundred years before my birth correspond to 16 people in 1842 who were contributing to my genetic constitution.

The number of relatives increases fast with time: Two hundred years before my birth there lived 256 people whose genes are now represented in me; two hundred years before that, in the year Henry VIII was beheading his fifth wife, I had 64,000 living direct ancestors. Going back an additional century, to 50 years before Columbus got to this continent, a million people were contriving -- for sure, entirely accidentally -- to get their genes to their appointed convergence in me.

That 500-year rule applies to everyone: each of us carries the genes of a million great, great, great (18 We all carry the genes of a million great, great, great (18 times) grandparents who lived 500 years ago.

times) grandparents who lived 500 years ago. And the numbers double with each earlier generation: 750 years before my parents got together my family tree encompassed a billion direct relatives.

A billion? Wait! There weren't a billion people in whole world then, much less in the Middle East of my supposed heritage. That means that many of the people who were living in the 13th-century Middle East are multiply represented in me -- which is to say, my family tree -- like everyone else's over the last 750 years -- has lots of branches that have grown back inward. Quite possibly, I am directly related to most of the people who lived at the eastern end of the Mediterranean at the time of the Crusades.

The crusaders. From the west they brought their ideas and ideals, and their versions of God and good times and genetic goods. And then also there were famous trade routes to the east, to Asia, and to the south, Africa.

If I drop further back in my family tree, to the year 942, a thousand years before the gleam was in my father's eye, my family tree should include, according to simple but obviously constrained arithmetic, one trillion people. Clearly, effectively all the people who were alive in the Middle East a thousand years ago are now genetically represented in me -- and in every other person laying claim to Middle Eastern origin.

But there's more. Given all the migrations and invasions and opening up of trade routes through western Europe, Africa, Persia, India, China and points farther east and south and north, the trillion potential relatives of a thousand years ago must have included lots of outsiders carrying the effective heritage of, 500 years previous, millions of people from places as distant as what is now Japan, Korea, Indonesia, southern Africa and northern Europe.

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