What is in your blood? Depends on who you ask, but a genie has the best answer.
Nature vs Nurture… it’s complex. At least, that is what the scientists say, but as a genealogist, I can make it simple. You might hear, “Ol’ gramps was a tough son of a gun, & you couldn’t get nothin’ past em either.” But if Gramps’ dad was a politician… how’d Gramps come about gettin’ so tough? How’d granny come about bein’ so sweet? How did Marilyn’s sociability catapult her to immortal, legendary status?
First: science, I respect it very much but I am not a scientist & would never want to be. I can only share my observance as a genealogist. Science offers us some important things to consider when it comes to genetic influences but this blog is only interested in inherited behaviors. Personality traits (which influence behavior/instinct) are complex, & they are polygenic (multiple genes are involved in the development). Science has had a difficult time sorting this out. Not me. For me it’s blissfully simple. Recent studies have taken a twist to show that one’s environment has more influence on the behaviors they develop than their directly inherited traits. This is to imply that you can theoretically nurture a trait out of somebody or even cause it to never develop.
That implication doesn’t always pencil out very well for them, & especially not for a genealogist, so they chalk it up to the complex duel between nature vs nurture.
Is that really what it is? An attentive genealogist learns to recognize traits as they are revealed through our research. Maybe not all of us, but I know that I pay attention to which traits are coming down each branch of the family tree, & I notice when I see them again. And again. And again. Genies aren’t scientists, we are historians, so we might be seeing something very simple about it all because we haven’t gotten distracted by a desire to scientifically prove what seems obvious to us. If a genie is bothered with that, her ancestors become nothing more than cold subjects in a boring study. We can’t tell a story that way. We would sooner research something to gouge our eyeballs out with than rip the souls out of our dead relatives by subjecting them to studies. We don’t want restrictions! We want personality, we want to reconstruct the lives of these ancestors. We want to include every piece of non-scientific circumstantial evidence we can snoop our way down to. We’re too nosy to care about the precise calculations of the genetic roulette. Here’s what we see: A generation of immigrants, followed by a generation of politicians, followed by a generation of law enforcement, followed by a generation of patriots, followed by a generation of preachers, followed by a generation of farmers, followed by a generation of actors. That is how it went it one of my lines that I am looking closely at. This line ultimately produced several living celebrities & just as many that have passed on already (and I’m still finding more). Really? Actors… from a bunch of politicians, patriots & preachers? Absolutely.
How Do I Know What I Am Made Of?
What does, say, a politician or preacher have in common with the traits of an actor? For 1, the desire to be up front, influencing as many people as possible. That’s extroversion shining brightly & beautifully. The ever-changing environment manipulates their primary trait, but nature sets (or lifts) the boundaries. Perhaps they weren’t hiring for politicians when the actor chose to pack up & move to Hollywood, so the individual carrying this inherited attribute found another way to spread themselves around. If this extrovert finds out there is a way to magnify their reach, they endeavor to pursue it. As an actor, you see them at the gym sculpting muscles because it makes them more desirable which gives them more TV work & if it’s their thing, more influence towards philanthropy or whatever their thing is. The preacher wanted the same thing. A way to influence & share energy. And at every opportunity, he wasn’t afraid to go a step further to expand his reach. This is the same (genetic)stamp that fueled the soldier. He was willing to be out there, on the front lines, with his brothers, making an impact & the sharing of energy is the best thing they can do to minimize casualties. The natural extrovert is so driven, that they will risk life & limb to satisfy that desire to be the one who makes a difference. When you see this trait reinventing itself all the way down your tree, you know that is what is in your blood.
But what about the person in the tree line who became a farmer? Perhaps what was in that persons blood came from a family line on his mothers side where being agreeable is the default trait. He’s doing what he knows he’s best at, even though he might have liked to see himself doing something else. If he’s got enough extroversion in him, you’ll see this farmer later hired his replacement as soon as possible & went & ran for mayor or opened up a church. If he’s a bit neurotic instead, perhaps he just stayed home, raised his kids, & drove his wife crazy. Look for what your ancestor did, by choice rather than necessity, & you’ll have him pegged.
When Nurture MUST Yield to Nature
A smart genealogist notes that his/her generation of politicians was bred from the generation of courageous immigrants who landed them in an unpredictable environment with no form of government. They needed to figure out who had the proper traits to manipulate the new environment. In their case, nurture must yield to nature because those humans were plucked out of the predictable environment that nurtured them & dropped into a hostile one with no turning back. There was no time to re-nurture. Those who slowed down for that ended up with their scalps on a stick.
True nature is going to determine whether you live or die, thrive or whither. At just a glance, the genetic genie subconsciously considers the Big 5 personality traits. There are many sub-traits but the Big 5, while not very powerful in definition, are the mothers of the subs & our descendants pull from that mother trait. Nurture takes a backseat to one’s true nature. It can influence how one channels their traits & instincts but it can’t change them. Environment doesn’t make a timid person brave. Nature does.
Look at the top of your family tree (the oldest part you have). You probably know exactly when that group came to the United States. New settlers needed to respect the primary traits nature revealed. They needed to recognize those who were naturally Conscientious (associated behaviors: organizational, dependable, planner). Just as importantly (or more) they needed to recognize natural Extroversion: the ability to behave in an assertive, energetic manner. Extroverts seek stimulation & work well in groups, not so well behind a desk. These extroverts are the reason your scalp won’t be on a stick. Before an enemy can get to your planner, the extrovert will have dispatched the threat. They needed to recognize Openness, because this yields a mind who problem solves, is intellectually curious, drawn to novelty which enables variety. The open mind knows that there is more than one way to skin a cat, they’re making dreams of having running water a reality. To handle social problems, new settlers need to recognize who is Agreeable. These agreeable people keep you from finding new ways of skinning each other. They have compassion & are cooperative rather than antagonistic, they might have wanted to be the Mayor but recognize their skills are best used elsewhere. The agreeable trait is responsible for one’s level of perception. The other very, very important of the 5 traits is Neuroticism. This describes ones vulnerability to unpleasant emotions like depression & anxiety. It refers to their emotional stability and impulse control. Once you look at the professions & specialties your ancestor held, you can take a guess at which trait was their primary nature. Being conscientious doesn’t mean they weren’t brave, it just means that bravery might not have been their defining trait. Being neurotic doesn’t mean they aren’t agreeable, it just means that they’d rather not be the one to make the final call. They don’t want to deal with the backlash. They needed to be in a role that had the least exposure to unpleasant emotions.
How Are We Channeling These Traits Today?
As I see it, we are given our roll of the DNA & then we are challenged with finding ways to channel what we’ve been given so that it can flourish in the environment we’ve spawned in. Once you have determined which of the 5 traits each of your family patriarchs had (the women are harder to “peg” because they didn’t do much outside the home for us to snoop into) you can see which trait was most obvious, most dominant. Maybe your line is full of doctors. This is the open mind working its magic. I have a line with a lot of allopathic doctors (today we call the MDs), I didn’t pick up on any extroversion tendencies because of the type of physicians they were. They weren’t putting themselves out there by trying new things the way osteopathic doctors were, they were sticking to the book. When I traced them all the way to the present day, living descendants, I found the trait to be just as predictable when I learned about their life choices.
Genealogists can see patterns, and if we were all scientists too, we might be able to calculate & predict where a trait was going to land next. If we knew the exact environment the ancestors grew up in, we could learn a little about how their environment nurtured their instincts to cause a difference in how it’s all channeled. If we know the family was poor, couldn’t afford medical school, we’d see that their circumstances caused them to use their most natural trait another way. But, the mother trait remains. Note: When traits mix evenly, you get sub-traits, hybrids of the Big 5. In my opinion those aren’t as easy to identify when your subjects are dead so I am not talking much about them. That’s for the scientists & their genetic calculations.
So You’ve Got A Family Full Of Extroverts, Whaddya Gonna Do?
Of course, you might see that as your family gets closer to present day, the careers are all over the board, you’ll have different colored pegs everywhere & finding what’s dominant is more challenging. By the time I got down to my kids in my tree, I saw that each line I had researched had strength in different areas, but the extrovert was still a bit more dominant across the board, with a side dish of openness. This is how I came about taking my kids more seriously when they say they want to be actors, or football stars, or anything else where they can share themselves with the world. My youngest is 8 years old, & he’s got a solid plan for his future. He works on his 6 pack abs every day. He does parkour training consistently, he is a self taught archer. His plan? To be an actor in superhero movies. Every skill he nourishes is for that purpose. I know that this is in his blood, so I am not likely to discourage him or try to change him. I just signed him up for acting lessons today after a week of revisiting the tree to see what the odds were that I was going to nourish this out of him. He shares blood with 3 living NFL Superstars (not just players on the team, but Hall of Fame Quarterbacks) and at least 6 actors, 4 of which are living. I don’t mean actors who did a show or two. I mean Marilyn Monroe (6th cousin). That woman is NEVER going to die. She may be dead, but she’s immortal. She hit the world upside the head with a set of characteristics that she shamelessly used for all they were worth, which, as it turns out, is a lot. The grandparents we share were small town public figures in the early 1800s & our grandmother, Sarah Fuller, was somethin’ else. Everything I needed to know I found in the old newspapers. Doing my own genealogy, I was able to see what was going on 6 generations before she was born & thanks to her fame, I can see what her genetic inheritance made out of her. I saw this coming down the branch in my direction & noted how it must’ve went through me to get to my son. He will be an actor, he will be successful & there’s nothing I can do about it.
No matter what I do from here, this demanding trait is going to defeat my motherly instinct to protect my children from themselves. I wanted to be a star once too, when I was 17 I hopped a freight with my best friend & we were on our way to Hollywood. Why did we get off at the 1st stop & come home? We only had $80 between us, she was not an extrovert so she got nervous, it was hard to hold the train door open, & I didn’t want to go without her. So, I found another way to channel my passion locally. I still sometimes wish I had gone to Hollywood, but at that time, I didn’t know it was in my blood & that I was not going to “grow out of it”. I have 3 other sons, one of which is on his way to the NFL. I hope they see him comin’ because I don’t know what to do with him if that doesn’t work out. He lives & breathes football.
Important side note: I have seen conflicting traits chew a person up & spit them out. That is a whole other story. If you are, say, equal parts extrovert+neurotic, you’ve got your work cut out for ya in this life. There are gonna be some interesting moments when instinctual conflicts happen. Again, if we look closely, we can see these ancestors who dealt with exactly that.
Have fun with your genealogy! Find out what you’re made of! Apparently, I come from a long line of class clowns who love to make spectacles of themselves. I own that. My dad was in the principals office regularly as a kid, & as an adult he had a tendency to attract younger women because if you can make a girl laugh, you can keep her forever. My grandfather was disciplined in the military for tying up a higher ranking officers bedsheets & other silly things. As for me, you can ask to see the “Tomfoolery” page if you wanna learn some new ways to cause mischief. My mouth is out of control sometimes. I don’t mean by way of profanity, I mean that I say ridiculous things that I end up having to excuse with humor. Anyone who has no sense of humor wants to bury me within 20 minutes of our introduction. My nature is borderline flirtatious only because making people laugh also makes them want to be around you as often as possible. If you have been to the “about the writer” section, you’ve seen the price I pay for making others smile.