“Who do you think you are?” is the BBC hit programme that delves into the family trees of well-known celebrities, offering fascinating genealogical research and tales of the stars’ ancestors, from all walks of life. Recently, the show aired an episode about the lineage of Danny Dyer, the archetypal Cockney geezer, loveable and funny, if a little dim. The episode was well-received and entertaining, with Dyer providing some great one-liners in response to the discovery that he is distantly related to Thomas Cromwell and King Edward III. Initially he quietly admits that he hopes to find some links to aristocracy as opposed to some sordid criminal past, which he supposes the audience may expect due to stereotypes about his social background. But why? What does it prove about him as a human being in 2016 if someone were to find some vague connection to a 15th century aristocrat? For Dyer, some noble, aristocratic lineage is not just a pleasant anecdote – it’s proof that he is more than a stereotype, that his character is validated by greater powers and as such, his being and own self-awareness elevated. I don’t imagine he would have reacted so positively if he had discovered that he is a descendant of lowly peasants.
It’s not just Dyer. The show is currently on its 13th series, with large audiences regularly tuning in to find out about the history of a given celeb. And in our own lives, people often seek clarification about their familial roots, with several companies charging hundreds of pounds in return for scientific results about your genealogy in the expanding market of family tree research. So why do we care? How can we explain our fascination with our deepest past, when it involves people and histories that are, realistically, vastly separated from our present selves? What does this tell us about our attitudes to the concept of ‘nature v nurture’, and why do we assign so much importance to our roots? Are we all just curious and nostalgic, or can we really attribute our individual circumstance, successes and very personality to our genes?
I think that we are all fascinated with our past, or in the case, the past of those who came before us. I am by no means patronising those who seek to discover more about their bloodlines, and admit that I myself have a rose-tinted vision of my Scottish Mackenzie clan roots despite having never met most of my family or knowing anything about my predecessors. I feel a sense of pride for my heritage, for where I’ve come from, even if it’s totally intangible and unrelated from my own life. And it’s this exact reaction, to which I am also party – this fascination with where we have come from – that I think is so interesting.
We are sociable, empathetic beings; the actions and opinions of other equally shape our own actions and opinions, and, for me, that is one of the most beautiful aspects of humanity. People are shaped by experience and interaction, and the question of whether or not our thoughts are really ever our own or just informed by such experience and interaction is something that I find very compelling. If we discover, then, that we are descendant from kings and queens, our attitude towards our idea of self alters, and we create some kind of bond between our present selves and this noble past. Even with regards to more recent lineage, we often associate the characteristics that we see in ourselves to those that family members before us possessed. How many times, for example, are children told that their abilities are derived from relatives? Well done with your art project, your Grandfather was great at art you know, you must take after him…
Maybe this sense of shared abilities or characteristics makes sense in relation at least to our parents, the people that bring us up, educate us about the world and instil some view of this world in us. As I grow older I understand ever more clearly how much of my supposed personal opinion, and likes and dislikes, have been shaped by and derived from the lessons I learnt from my parents. Which in itself presents something of a conundrum when trying to understand who we are as individuals. How much of what I say, think and do is really a product of my own nature? Am I really only good at something because I’m related to someone else who shared such skills, and, by this logic, can I then also blame my shortcomings on them in a similar way?
The question of nature v nurture, ie whether or not our behaviour is controlled by our individual nature or by the affect of our surrounding environment, is one that remains unanswered, but I think that people use both sides of this genealogical coin when it suits them. In general, we find it easier perhaps to attribute our flaws to an uncontrollable force of nature. Regarding aspects of human nature such as homosexuality, usually our own opinion on such nature will be revealed in our attitude towards the question of nature v nurture. Some people, convinced that it cannot be a natural phenomenon to be attracted to members of the same sex, may refuse the concept of nature and seek to place blame with external factors such as parents or society as a whole. These same people may have no difficulty at all, however, in believing that they are fully in control of their own desires and opinions, that they are autonomous beings with autonomous minds and autonomous feelings.
We are but fickle beings, and at times our thought processes seem totally hypocritical when we take a moment to examine what we really believe in and why, but by endeavouring to find some sense in our own views, opinions, interests and desires, we can find out so much about ourselves and the world around us. Maybe you do indeed share some characteristics with your 15-times great-grandfather, like Dyer, but it cannot explain your present thoughts and actions. And importantly, we are responsible not only for our merits, but also for our weaknesses.