#65: Uncle Wiki’s Cousins

Dear Stolf: I was reading thru the Wikipedia article on “Cousins”…some of it seemed to make sense, altho much of it was confusing. Would you care to critique it?  …from Lolly, in LaLa-Land

Dear Lolly: Soitenly! And you’re right, some of the basic information is sound, altho there are some strange twists and turns, and anyway, anyone who relies solely on Uncle Wiki for his knowledge of the world is, I believe the technical term is, a “doofus.” In what follows, everything in italics is taken verbatim from the site you cited, with my comments in red. Several of the charts have been changed to a straight text format, to make commenting on them easier. And the whole deal starts with this disclaimer:

65.1  This article has multiple issues. “Issues”? Well, at least it doesn’t have any “problems”!  Please help improve it or discuss these issues on the talk page.

It needs additional citations for verification.  Hoo boy!…see comments below. Tagged since March 2011. 

It needs attention from an expert on the subject. WikiProject Genealogy or the Genealogy Portal may be able to help recruit one. Tagged since November 2008. It’s interesting that in 4 years, nobody has stepped up, at least not to the satisfaction of this tagger.

It may contain original research. Tagged since March 2010

65.2  Wikipedia is supposed to be a “people’s encyclopedia,” that anyone can contribute to. If you have ever tried however, it will quickly occur to you that Uncle Wiki more resembles a full-blown cult…and I’m hardly the first to have said that…replete with various levels of “door-keepers” and “key-masters.” And perhaps the most bizarre rule the acolyte will encounter is the threshold for inclusion: verifiability, not truth. Something that is true, but not verifiable, as defined by their labyrinthine algorithm of “citations,” cannot be included. Just try it, and see how fast your “correction” gets “de-corrected.” And as the above disclaimer suggests, what constitutes sufficient verification is a source of constant argument and controversy among Wikipedians themselves…well, man is the “rule-making” animal, nez pah?

65.3  But equally problematic is Uncle Wiki’s refusal to include what it calls “original research.” As an example, I have in the past several postings of G4BB pointed out that “sharing 2 grandparents, but not a parent” is not a reliable definition for “1st cousins,” which is to say “full 1st cousins,” since double half-first cousins also fit this definition. A simple diagram demonstrates this fact…it is what philosophers and other academics call “true upon inspection” or “palpably obvious.” But short of finding it explicitly stated in a published source…a book, newspaper, scholarly journal, etc. …it is not Wikifiable, hence not “true.” Is it any wonder Wikipedia is free…who in their right mind would pay for such a mess? But on to the meat of the article…

65.4  In kinship terminology, a cousin is a relative with whom a person shares one or more common ancestors. This is completely wrong. It says that all blood relatives are called cousins. And sure enough, the very next sentence has to “take it back.” The term is rarely never!!! used when referring to a relative in an immediate family in which there is a more specific term (e.g., mother, father, sister, brother, etc.). Not only that, but beyond the “immediate” (do they mean “nuclear”?) family…uncles, aunts, nephews, and nieces are never “cousins” either.  The term “blood relative” can be used synonymously and establishes the existence of a genetic link. No, a blood relative is not the same thing as a cousin, pure and simple. This introductory definition is complete nonsense…it is categorically not the way speakers of English use these terms.  Wow, go figure!

65.5  Now it’s true that our system of kinship can be translated into a mathematical system using only the term “cousin,” modified by degrees such as 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc…levels of “removed”…and the terms “ascending” and “descending.” Such a system is completely logical and labels each relationship unambiguously. Thus siblings are called “0th cousins”…that’s “zero-th.” An uncle is a “0th cousin once removed ascending,” and a grand nephew is a “0th cousin twice removed descending.” Further, you yourself are your own -1th cousin…which is to say, (-1)th…thus your father is your “-1th cousin once removed ascending”…your grandson is your “-1th cousin twice removed descending,” and like that. And as strange as this system seems, it is the self same kinship system as we employ…we substitute more practical and individualized terms for the mathematical ones. Such an “everybody-is-a-cousin” system would thus appear to be a mere academic exercise, a mathematical curiosity at best…but in truth, it does underpin the straightforward formulas we can use to relate various levels of relatives to one another. But I doubt that’s what the writer of the goofy definition of cousin above had in mind…he hardly seems smart enough…and at any rate, it is completely out of place as a standard definition of “cousin.”

65.6  Systems of “degrees” and “removals” no, “removeds” are used in the English-speaking world to describe the relationship between two cousins and the ancestor they have in common. Various governmental entities better to say: civil law, church law, and conventional genealogical terminology have established systems for legal use yes, and everyday use as well that can handle kinships with common ancestors existing any number of generations in the past, though common usage often eliminates the degrees and removals and refers to people with common ancestry as simply “cousins” or “distant cousin.”  This is true as far as it goes, but awkwardly stated, especially the part about “common usage.” Again, grand uncles and great grand uncles are never thought of as cousins…as the siblings of someone in our direct line of descent, they are given special terms, and that’s that. Precise cousin designations are indeed abbreviated in common parlance, but that doesn’t change what they are as formal kinship relationships. And there certainly are situations where you wish to be precise about who’s related to who, and our kinship system allows you to do that.

65.7  By extension, the term “cousin” can also be used when referring to the genetic relationships between humans and any other form of life, as per the theory of evolution of all life on Earth descending from one common ancestor. However, the term in this sense is most commonly restricted to the fields of study surrounding ecological genetics. This part is nutty…yes, and taken further, the horse is cousin to the donkey…and the Sun is cousin to the Moon…so what?…that’s poetry, not kinship.

65.9  Basic definitions: The ordinals this word refers to numbers when used as rank, or to arrange things in a specific order…as opposed to numbers used as quantities or amounts…its use here ought to be explained  in the terms “first cousins”, “second cousins”, “third cousins”, describe the “degree” of the cousin relationship. The degree of two cousins’ relationship is determined by the number of generations to their closest common ancestor. The concept of half-cousins is being ignored, and for simplicity’s sake, so be it…but genealogically, this is not a trivial consideration…for example, half-1st cousins are descended from 7 grandparents, and hence 7 families, not 6 as with full 1st cousins, since the fathers of these cousins are half-siblings, not full siblings.  When the cousins are not the same generation, they are described as “removed”. In this case, the smaller number of generations to the common ancestor is used to determine the degree, and the difference in generations determines the number of times removed. Note that the ages of the cousins are irrelevant to the definition of the cousin relationship. OK, technically correct, but again clumsy and hard to understand…you can appreciate why that opening disclaimer remains in place…

65.10  Chart:  Term…Definition…Example

First cousin…The children of two siblings…Bill and Sally are first cousins because their fathers were brothers. 

Second cousin…The children of two first cousins…Bob and Sarah are second cousins because Bob’s father, Bill, and Sarah’s mother, Sally, are first cousins 

Third cousin…The children of two second cousins…Brian and Stephanie are third cousins because Brian’s father, Bob, and Stephanie’s mother, Sarah, are second cousins. These 3 definitions are fine. As a consequence, shared grandparents, great grandparents, etc. will indeed come into play, but this is the clearest way to define it.

First cousin once removed…Two people for whom a first cousin relationship is one generation removed…The rest of these definitions are not fine…as a matter of intellectual clarity, you cannot define a term by using that same term in the definition…it’s like saying a “house” is the thing that people who live in houses live in…or that a “horse” is what a baby horse grows up to be…if you don’t understand what these convoluted explanations of “removed” are driving at, I’d say you’re pretty darn smart! …Bob and his father’s first cousin, Sally, are first cousins once removed to each other. They are one generation removed from the common generational relationship between Bob’s Father (Bill) and Sally. 

First cousin twice removed…Two people for whom a first cousin relationship is two generations removed…Brian and his grandfather’s first cousin, Sally, are first cousins twice removed. They are two generations removed from the common generational relationship between Brian’s grandfather (Bill), and Sally. 

Second cousin once removed…Two people for whom a second cousin relationship is one generation removed…Brian and his father’s second cousin, Sarah, are second cousins once removed. They are one generation removed from the common second cousin relationship between Brian’s father (Bob) and Sarah  It’s a shame, because this is the point where people wishing to more fully understand our kinship system often get tripped up…and there are many simpler, clearer, more intuitive, and hence more useful ways of laying this out…none of this part is wrong per se…just unhelpful in the extreme.

65.11  Asymmetric definitions. The dyadic honestly, it sounds like this writer is trying more to impress eggheads…and doing a right bumbling job of it…than to make himself understood…run, dear friends! run away as fast as you can! For the record, a “dyad” is just a “pair”…2 things related to each other in some particular way. It’s like what in certain card games is called  a “doubleton.” Normal people should expect to go thru their entire lives without ever uttering the word “dyad” definitions of cousins in the previous section are common but not universal. When you think about it…and at this juncture what’s the point, really?…it’s hard to know what they’re talking about. As the spiel continues, it appears they mean not everyone is content with the generational confusion…older or younger?…inherent in the term “once removed.” I would merely suggest that when dealing with kinship, and the precise way in which people are related to one another, the desire to remove ambiguity certainly is universal, and thank goodness for that. As with other relationship definitions, e.g., father-daughter; aunt-nephew, some people wrong! Not “some”…all, and that’s all civil law, all church law, and all genealogists who have any sense about them prefer to use an asymmetric terminology that defines both the relationship and the roles played by each person in the relationship. In this case, the degree of the relationship from cousin A to cousin B is determined by the distance from A to the common ancestor and the number of times removed is the difference in generations between A to B. Sometimes “upwards” or “downwards” yes, this is used…more commonly, it’s “ascending” and “descending”…and there are other terms too…one blogger said their family always used “augmented” and “diminished” (a musical family?), the latter term comically morphed into “demented” is used to indicate the direction of this difference. For example, if A has a grandparent whose sibling is B’s parent, then B is A’s “second cousin, once removed (upwards)”, whereas A is B’s “first cousin once removed (downwards)”. Oops…this is flat out a mistake…I’ll be charitable and call it a typo. As my Chart 217 shows, the underlined word should be first

65.12 Additional terms…The following is a list of less common cousin terms.

Double cousin… Double first cousins arise when two siblings of one family reproduce with two siblings of another family. The resulting children are related to each other through both parents’ families. Double first cousins share both sets of grandparents in common “share…in common” is redundant and sloppy, I don’t care who you are and have double the degree of consanguinity of ordinary first cousins. Children of double first cousins are double second cousins to each other. This could be taken to mean the children that double 1st cousins have with each other…here at G4BB I use the gentle euphemism “interbreeding”…but it actually means double 1st cousins having children with unrelated mates. And after all, if your parents are double 1st cousins to each other, you will be quadruple 2nd cousins to your siblings, not double 2nd cousins.

Half-cousin…Half-cousins are the children of two half-siblings and their respective partners e.g., the children of two half-brothers and their wives (or two half-sisters and their husbands). They left out “or a half-brother and his wife, and a half-sister and her husband”…but are you surprised?

Step-cousin…Step-cousins are either stepchildren of an individual’s aunt or uncle, or children of one’s step-aunt or uncle. 

Cousin-ln-law…A cousin-in-law is the spouse of an individual’s cousin, or the cousin of one’s spouse. 

Maternal/paternal cousin…A term that specifies whether the individual is one’s cousin on the mother’s side (maternal) or father’s side (paternal).

65.13  A “cousin chart”, or “table of consanguinity”, is helpful in identifying the degree of cousin relationship between two people using their most recent common ancestor as the reference point. Cousinship between two people can be specifically described in degrees and removals by determining how close, generationally, the common ancestor is to each person. This chart is correct, altho it would be more practical if, for example, “great great great great grandparent” were written “4G grandparent.” And to be technically accurate, every “cousin” in this chart is a “half-“…

65.14  Canon law relationship chart: Another visual chart used in determining the legal relationship between two people who share a common ancestor is based upon a diamond shape, usually referred to as a “canon law relationship chart”.

The chart is used by placing the “common progenitor” (the person from whom both people are descended) in the top space in the diamond-shaped chart, and then following each line down the outside edge of the chart. Upon reaching the final place along the opposing outside edge for each person, the relationship is then determined by following that line inward to the point where the lines intersect. The information contained in the common “intersection” defines the relationship.

For a simple example, in the illustration to the right, if two siblings use the chart to determine their relationship, their common parents are placed in the topmost position and each child is assigned the space below and along the outside of the chart. Then, following the spaces inward, the two would meet in the “brother (sister)” diamond. If their children want to determine their relationship, they would follow the path established by their parents, but descend an additional step below along the outside of the chart (showing that they are grandchildren of the common progenitor); following their respective lines inward, they would come to rest in the space marked “1st cousin”. In cases where one side descends the outside of the diamond further than the other side because of additional generations removed from the common progenitor, following the lines inward shows both the cousin rank (1st cousin, 2nd cousin) plus the number of times (generations) “removed”.

In the example provided at the right, generations one (child) through ten (8th great-grandchild) from the common progenitor are provided; however, the format of the chart can easily be expanded to accommodate any number of generations needed to resolve the question of relationship. No problems here that I can see, altho it’s so wordy, I may well have missed one. And for once, there’s a legitimate reason why half-cousins are omitted…as defined by Catholic Canon Law, half-‘s are considered the same as fulls. Still, such labels as “gg son” and “2 gg son” are confusing…one might wonder what the “2” in “2 gg son” means when there are also 2 g’s in “gg son.” Clearer would be “g gson” meaning “great grandson”…or better yet “1g gson”…followed by “2g gson,” “3g gson,” etc.

65.15  Mathematical definitions: There is a mathematical way to identify the degree of cousinship shared by two individuals. Each “great” or “grand” in the description of one individual’s relationship to the common ancestor has a numerical value of 1. 

Example: If person one’s great-great-great-grandfather is person two’s grandfather, then person one’s “number” is 4 (great + great + great + grand = 4) and person two’s “number” is 1 (grand = 1). The smaller of the two numbers is the degree of cousinship. The two people in this example are first cousins. The difference between the two people’s “numbers” is the degree of removal. In this case, the two people are thrice (4 − 1 = 3) removed, making them first cousins thrice removed.

Example 2: If someone’s great-great-great-grandparent (great + great + great + grand = 4) is another person’s great-great-great-grandparent (great + great + great + grand = 4), then the two people are 4th cousins. There is no degree of removal, because they are on the same generational level (4 − 4 = 0).

Example 3: If one person’s great-grandparent (great + grand = 2) is a second person’s great-great-great-great-great-grandparent (great + great + great + great + great + grand = 6), then the two are second cousins four times removed. The first person’s “number” (2) is the lower, making them second cousins. The difference between the two numbers is 4 (6 − 2 = 4), which is the degree of removal (generational difference). Well, this is probably correct, but don’t quote me…it’s so tedious, I’ve lost all heart. I should point out that the chart that accompanies it is actually illustrating 2 different meanings of the word “degree”…degrees of cousinship in the boxes, and degrees of overall relationship, which are the small numbers to the upper left of each box…so the chart isn’t specifically germane to the mathematical point being made.  And there is one labeling error, as I have noted…it should say “Grand Uncles Aunts”…

65.16  And that, dear and patient friends, is where it ends, except for a few random, and trivial, examples of famous cousins. And if you think this is bad, try clicking on the “talk” tab, at the very top on the left, to see how unworkable this “anyone (in theory) can play” philosophy really is. Don’t get me wrong…I use Uncle Wiki a lot, but only as a starting point, to roughly orient myself to a subject I want to learn more about. But that’s why Wikipedia is such a joke among people who are seriously interested in any subject whatsoever. And remember what they say: reading it on the internet is like hearing it on the telephone…and if you call up enough people, chances are you can piece together the straight story eventually. Regular mailbag questions continue next week…peace out, cuz’…

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Copyright © 2012 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved

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