- Some Family: The Mormons and How Humanity Keeps Track of Itself
Score one more for the advocates of narrative's culture-constructing power. In a work that combines admirable scholarly detail, depth, and range, as well as wit and imaginative insight, Donald Akenson analyzes western humanity's effort to "track itself" genealogically. Benefiting from Akenson's expertise as a leading Irish social and cultural historian, sometime interpreter of the Bible, and successful novelist, Some Family is both a serious and lively argument for the narrative function of genealogy. A finalist for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, it deserves to be widely read by specialists in religious and historical studies, as well as generalists with an interest in genealogy.
Akenson's main point is that genealogies do not report biological patterns of human descent, but construct them according to ideologically driven rules. Viewed as a whole, these patterns constitute meaning-bearing sagas of human origins that inexorably shape the culture they dominate. Some Family applies this hypothesis to the genealogical apparatus of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), increasingly the source of choice for those wanting to identify their progenitors. Akenson argues that, by virtue of its domination of the field of genealogical research and collection, the LDS Church is on the way to becoming an extraordinarily powerful cultural force. All who have ever lived and those who seek information about them are gradually being gathered within the set of meanings conveyed by the Latter-day Saint way of recording and explaining humankind.
The LDS Church possesses and makes easily accessible the world's largest database of information about specific individuals. To date, its members have collected at least two billion names, one billion of which are already [End Page 480] searchable online. At present rates, the LDS are likely to add three billion more "before they hit the wall of forgetfulness," or the end of extant records (10). Akenson points out that, aside from the sheer magnanimity or lunacy of this effort, depending on your point of view, the result of LDS efforts is a largely undiscovered treasure trove of research data for scholars; a fact Akenson discovered when studying the Irish in rural Ontario. Unable to pay high fees for access to government land records, he was delighted to find a copy of the same records available at no cost though the local LDS Church. This experience left him not only appreciative but curious. In Some Family, Akenson pursues two questions: what motivates the Church to create "'a common pedigree of mankind,'" and what is the competence of the resulting database (xi). In sum, he concludes that the LDS Church's genealogical apparatus is "impressively" consistent with scholarly standards, and that the idiosyncrasies of its apparatus usefully illuminate the nature of genealogy generally and Mormonism in particular (210).
Two fundamental issues are raised by the manner in which Latter-day Saints collect their data. First, information is submitted by volunteers without resort to replication studies or other systematic review of the data for accuracy. Inaccuracies are especially common in material gathered in the first years of the project, when early members of the church imported uncritically ancient genealogies of European monarchies and biblical figures. Thus, paradoxically, the database is more reliable for broad historical and sociological studies than family histories, and especially the family histories of multigenerational Latter-day Saint families (200). The second issue is architectonic, and concerns the assumptions and rules or "grammar" by which persons and events (births, marriages, and deaths) are related in the database. Most significantly, the Church's data entry forms force diverse family systems into a single type: i.e., European patrilineal. Moreover, like the bible, the entire system assumes a biological, not social ordering of human existence. Both criticisms are discussed in detail, largely in appendices that provide scientific analysis without interrupting the more lively historical evidence in the body of the text. One appendix demonstrates the lack of an...