Debra Smith


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Genetics, hereditary factors, social privilege or something else? 'Great People" decended from just one woman

Queen Elizabeth, Lady Diana, almost all of the members of the royal families of Europe, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Rosevelt, George W Bush, Churchill, Tenneson, and Bertrand Russel are all descended from one English Duchess. Her name was Kathryn Swinfeild and she was the mistress and then wife of Duke John of Galt (aka The King of Castille) and the mother of the Beauforts and some of the kings of England.

What do you think accounts for this?

  • Nov 17 2011: Debra
    This is an interesting question I think for two reasons. One I do think that social privilege, besides just "number of pregeny" plays an important role here. In spite of egalitarian concepts in the US, it is obvious that we have had (most of the famous founding fathers) and do have an aristocracy of families. Some have developed over long periods of time, some quite recently in the scheme of things. Class does play a role here.

    The second reason is yes, we could probably trace back six degrees of separation from many great people I think Stephen below said something important. Many of these people did come to prominence "at the right moment." It is important to us to reflect then on exactly who it is we consider great and why. Is someone great because he sits behind a desk at the Oval Office, or because he cleans up the mess everyday that others make?
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    Nov 17 2011: Go back a little further and you'll find someone we all descended from. (Eve or Lucy ... depending on your persuasion.)


    There have been about 83 generations of the Kong family since the time of its most illustrious member, Kong Zi (aka Confucius.) There are now 2 million registered descendants, and an estimated 1 million unregistered.
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      Nov 17 2011: So, Thomas are you saying that these 'illustrious' people are just some among many other descendents? Good point but I am also wondering why these ones maintained their position in society over all these generations. Any insights?
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        Nov 17 2011: Any insights? Not really. But I don't think it's unusual for several people out of thousands or even millions to achieve or maintain elevated positions.

        If we go back far enough, I'll bet if we traced ANY family tree forward, we will find about 10% of its progeny will have excelled in some way. And another 10% will have probably been miscreants of varying degree.

        What may be unusual is that, in her lifetime, Kathryn Swinfeild was of sufficient stature that it was deemed appropriate to even trace and record her lineage. If we knew who her great-great-great-great grandmother was, we could probably add another 100 or so prominent individuals to her extended family tree.

        What would we find if her scullery maid's family had also been tracked over the ensuing years?

        By the way, those numbers for Kong Zi only represent the registered descendants and - based on those registered - an estimate as to those who might not be registered. If the estimates were simply based on numerical projections the number of descendants would be much, much higher.
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        Nov 17 2011: Debra, you ask Thomas but if you allow I will add my view to your question.
        For over thousand years nobility was a close circle in Europe.

        Even as I was child we had 4 classes that weren't that distinct anymore at the time.
        It was nobility and aristocracy, clergy and officials, entrepreneurs and businessmen, workmen or labor class and the lower class or outcast (prostitutes, beggars, criminals/pimps but also handmaid’s, errant boys, you name it, everyone that had to try to survive without support.)

        Before the twentieth century this was the structure of society and borders between those layers couldn’t barely be crossed. In England this was even more severe and lasted longer. Trains had separate apartments for those classes and you wasn’t allowed to step in the higher class than you belonged even if you could pay the higher fee.

        For centuries though a good education and refinement was only available for a small group and that’s where the people you name came from.

        To escape from your class in society was at first one of the most important motivators for people to emigrate over sea.
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          Nov 17 2011: You know Frans, I think that my question arose out of my country of origin which generated a sort of naivete and that I did not consider all of these things that appear to be so obvious to the gentlemen who have responded to me.

          I have no real experience with a class system. There is still a residual of English heritage in Canada which might prefer a more class separated society but for the most part it has almost been humoured out of existence. We have hereditary wealth but it is young. Most of our prominent wealthy families made their money as lately as the depression era when they got rich smuggling booze to the Americans and then their wealth bought them respectablity.

          My grandmother was an English orphan who was shipped to Canada at 13 as a bonded servant. My French Canadian relatives embraced the country in the 17th century and married practical First Nations wives in order to survive. My son is now a Canadian diplomat having risen from such humble stock by passion and intellect.

          I guess as a mother, I was wondering if a woman could have a multigenerational effect or if money buys position for ever.
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        Nov 17 2011: As I see it Debra you are highborn with inner nobility.

        That's a class of good motherhood, something that real nobility rather left in the hands of others to care about. If your son represents that standard he does make a difference for the better.
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    Nov 17 2011: Kathryn Swinfeild, what century was that?
    We just might be related to her too...

    There might be a coincidencial factor here, since look :

    if someone from 1500 AD has 2 kids and each kid and grand kid all have 2 of their own
    If we assume that there are 20 generations from 1500 to 2011
    then you get 2 to the power 20, which is over 2 million.

    That's the theoretical number of people descended from Kathryn Swinfeild.
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      Nov 17 2011: Yes, good point. She was born in the 13th century. I am wondering, though, what might account for their continued promienence and place of privelege?
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        Nov 17 2011: Debra,
        It's almost certain that everyone in our country that hasn't immigrated recently, has somewhere in his ancestry, Charles the Great. So every important person in the last few centuries descended from that man as well as from most other people that lived at that same time.
        Since people are more mobile in general they spread over the planet so, in a few generations maybe everybody on earth had for 2000 years the same ancestors. The more people mingle the closer the year will get that we all share the same ancestry.

        As in your case money and good upbringing keeps the descendants within a small circle the probability that someone with power or knowledge share their ancestors not too far back in time is evident.
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          Nov 17 2011: Kathryn Swinfeild seems to have been a woman who loved children and who was attentive to not only her own but to John of Galt's other children throughout their lives. They loved her and she tended them carefully. Even though some of her own children were born out of wedlock at such a time spent their life times trying to redeem her reputation. Thus your point about a 'good upbringing' is part of what I wanted to explore.
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        Nov 17 2011: 13th century, that's 32 generations away.

        So the figure is now 8,5 billion people, with only 2 children per descendant!
        So feel free to include us in this great lineage, as we are now very unlikely not to be descended from Lady Swinfeild.

        (With 4 kids per descendant, you get a 20 digit figure, which is the number of stars in the universe...)
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          Nov 17 2011: I think this is the best part about conversing with the fine minds here on TED. You really made me see a gap in my thinking process and while i am a smiggin embarassed to have missed this point- I love realizing it now. Thanks Gerald.
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          Nov 17 2011: Not exactly Gerald.
          A high number yes.

          I did some genealogy myself and if you follow all lines you see them come together once and awhile.
          Partners were often chosen among kin in the second and third line.
          Great families that kept contacts through life was the obvious place to meet your loved one.
          Every time someone marries a descendant of a brother to your grandparent a lot of ancestors are shared.
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    Nov 17 2011: Gandhi Too?!?!?!
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      Nov 17 2011: Christopher!

      Addition: I love the way you joke and make an important point at the same time. Are these people really 'great' or do you define greatness another way, Christopher?
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        Nov 18 2011: Debra I respect how you ask questions that keep dialogue open.

        As for greatness, those people certainly accomplished a lot- to a grand or great scale you may say.

        I've always wondered myself how much motivation and success could be attributed to genetics. A nature vs nurture debate I'm sure.

        This next semester I'm taking a theories of personality course- so maybe I can add more to the conversation in a few months time.
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          Nov 18 2011: Hey Christopher, If you have any questions that the prof isn't answering I hope you'll let me help because I love personality stuff. I have a masters in it. Good luck with that course!
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      Nov 17 2011: Ghandhi too, this is not unlikely.
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        Nov 17 2011: Can you elaborate on this Gerald?
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          Nov 17 2011: The odds of any Indian to have European ancestry is not zero. I couldn't elaborate a lot about this, but from what I know India was never isolated from Europe, culturally. I'm assuming neither was it genetically.

          But that's just an ignorant guess...
    • Nov 17 2011: I loved your answer Christopher. After careful research, Chairman Mao and Moctezuma II from Mexico can also be traced back to her. I realize that is a stretch, but why not?
  • Nov 17 2011: I, unfortunately do not have the time to do the research you have done but as general statements we can observe the following:

    -social privilege and wealth are not detrimental to their sons and daughters and as long as it's maintained it passes from generation to generation. There are many well known "dynasty' families.
    -Heredity can be a factor but probably less so than the quality of education and the culture of the off spring. Genetics, over the course of the number of generations involved would also suffer the 50/50 but.....and it's a significant but...there is some greater probability they would marry equals or better.

    Conversely I would suspect that many of these "great" people, not given the advantages they have would simply exist unknown in the general population. With respect for the individuals you have named, while some might be looked at as great people they were not necessarily great thinkers or even 'doers" in the classical sense. Also many were at the right place at the right (or wrong time) and that is their claim to great. Had that not been they would be less recognized.
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    Nov 17 2011: Debra, with respect with your conversation, I feel like I'm missing your point.
    It seems you wish to understand how a social status is maintained through the generations.
    But what about the fact that most of the descendance does not follow this privileged course, since the numbers grow exponencially?

    Do you realise you could've started off with a medieval beggar and selected the highest ranking people of the day as his descendance?
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      Nov 17 2011: Hi Gerald, I actually responded to your last post with a mea culpa. There was a big gap in my reasoning that I really appreciate you and all of the others pointing out. Thank you. (read the other apology it is even more humble.)