I read a recent op-ed in the New York Times, “Your Ancestors, Your Fate,” by Gregory Clark the other day. I can’t wait to talk about it in my kinship class next semester. It was a fascinating argument that kinship links have deep, lasting effects on individuals. Much as the social network analysis of the Framingham heart study data set showed that friends can make you fat, Clark argued that paternal ancestry, as tracked by the patrilineal inheritance of surnames, explained social mobility more than even one’s parents’ background. I also had an inkling that most people would interpret this in terms of genes, not social relations. Steven Pinker, for instance, tweeted that the essay was ‘taboo breaking’ because it hinted that social mobility is partly genetic. Given that all human behavior is partly genetic, and partly acquired, I guess I don’t see what is so blasphemous, but anyway…

People are primed to see this study as proof of a biological basis for social patterns because we’re still laboring under the idea that kinship is, at least at its core, an innate form of social bond, and that in turn we inherit many social traits through genetic inheritance. There are many ways people with certain surnames might tend toward the fortunes of their paternal grandfather and other lineal ancestors besides having at most one quarter of their genes. Consider the most fortunate lineage of them all: The House of Windsor. This family changed their surname, from “Saxe-Coburg and Gotha,” as did the Swedish population in the Clark study itself. The Windsors changed their name specifically to assimilate to the society in which they lived. Other people and families change their surnames to avoid discrimination. And many people do not, and their social position is probably strongly predicted by their surname because of discrimination and prejudice (good or bad) toward the linguistic origin of the name. Likewise, adoptees also adopt the surname of their fathers. So that’s at least four very common examples of how social practices surrounding kinship detach surnames from genetic patrilineages, and genes from outcomes.

Patrilineal descent probably does strongly determine social position, but only because descent relationships – that is, social relationships which are not necessarily biological – are themselves powerful social forces even in societies which are no longer organized purely in terms of kinship. As Jack Goody has long argued for African kingdoms and Western states, lineal descent is strongly linked to heritable property. As a source of accumulated social privilege, it is all the more harder to disembed from these institutions because people tend to view kinship links as natural. Yet this is a double mistake. Ancestry is not fate, and to treat it as such reinforces its influence.

Is then all social outcomes simply arbitrary? Not at all. What is fascinating about this study is the suggestion that even a socially determined patriline, in spite of wars, revolutions and economic upheaval, will still gravitate toward its original social position. In his recent book “What Kinship Is–And Is Not”, Marshall Sahlins says that, even in social systems where people have to activate and perform, rather than simply inherit, the status of relative, throughout the world, the kind of person they become is someone who is inalienably tied to others and a group as a whole. The content of the kinship bond is inherently social. We have tended to view this kind of bond as a constraint on freedom, or something that contributes to the latency of social patterns. Social network studies have begun to show that relationships themselves can make things happen. In this case, I’m inclined to think kinship is often a source of ‘weak ties’ and allow a group of relatives to monopolize opportunities to attain social and symbolic capital like education. Arguably the surname itself – Murdoch, Clinton, Bush, Bo – is social capital.