Monday, May 25, 2015

Reflecting gender in a family tree

Gender is an important part of life stories. An individual’s gender history can impact their relationships with their parents and siblings. It can also affect the person (or people) they marry and whether and how they come to be parents. This information is not always private; it can become part of family history.

As the amount of online genealogical data grows and as technology improves for creating family trees, new and more flexible ways of representing gender may arise.

Deciding what story to tell

Some genealogists maintain a “purist” position that a family tree should properly dedicate itself to outlining biological relationships. Within this approach, each individual on the tree will have one mother and one father – the people who contributed their DNA to form that person.

This approach poses problems for many people’s family stories. First of all, it does not reflect the reality and significance of adoption. One solution is to draw both family trees for the adoptee: the birth family and the adoptive family. If space permits, both trees can be drawn on the same page using different colors or backgrounds. This is often presented as a “roots and branches” visual design for young adopted children who are drawing their own family tree. With the child in the heart of the tree trunk, the birth family members are the “roots” of the tree and the adoptive family members are the “branches.”

A different problem (or, perhaps, opportunity) exists for people who claim more than one gender role over their lifetimes, and especially for those who have children, whether biologically or through adoption. How does one decide whether the indicate the person’s role as “daughter” or “son,” “wife” or “husband,” and especially as “mother” or “father,” where the person may have filled multiple roles at different times?

A blanket rule always to label a person’s sex in some particular way – whether based upon their birth sex, their surgically reassigned sex, the gender in which they spent the majority of their life, the gender on their marriage certificate(s), the way in which they contributed DNA to one or more children, or the “Mama” or “Papa” name by which their children called them – is a kind of stereotype and assumption that is no more proper or accurate within a family tree than it is in any other sphere of life. What is most relevant for one person may not be as important for another. The information in all of these spheres together may not present the individual consistently as one sex or the other, and even if it does, the person may have a different story to tell.

If the person is alive, they can, of course, be asked for their preference about the name and gender they want to use in the family tree. The document may be shared within the family or eventually stored as a publicly accessible record, so it is important to honor the lives of the people mentioned within it, which most likely means representing their gender as they would choose to represent it themselves.

Go back enough generations, on the other hand, and all of the ancestors are deceased. These people cannot be asked for their opinion, so the researcher must make a determination about how to present them.

One person whose life story poses such a question about gender representation is Deborah Samson, an American female who disguised herself as a man named Robert Shurtliff to fight in the Revolutionary War, and later returned to live as a woman, marrying a man and bearing children. (Her story is told in the recent novel Revolutionary by Alex Myers.) When faced with a real-life character like this, one must determine how to present their story. Other genealogists might find a relationship to a castrated man who may have held third-gender social status (whether he appreciated it or not) in places like China, India, Turkey or Italy. Again, there is a challenge in deciding how to present the family story.

Online tools

Once the researcher is ready to make a declaration about an individual’s gender, whether it is provisional or final, the next steps will be limited by what the medium allows. Most people today who draw up their family trees will do so on a computer. Each program has a different way of capturing and displaying gender.


One of the largest genealogy sites on the Internet today is Ancestry ( Users can make multiple family trees and optionally make the information available to share with other users. Their trees may be for their own families or for unrelated people in whom they have a research interest. Within the family tree, each individual has a profile that can contain multiple photographs or portraits and other media files. People without photographs are represented as white silhouettes. There are three gender options, which control the default silhouette: “male,” side-facing with short hair on a light blue background; “female,” side-facing with slightly longer, wavy hair on a light pink background; and “unknown,” facing straight ahead, bald in appearance, on a light gray background. The system asks for “Last name” before the gender is assigned. After it is assigned, the same field is called “Surname” for males and people of unknown gender, and “Maiden name” for females.

While Ancestry requires that one of these three gender options be selected for each person in a family tree, it does not restrict marriage or parent-child relationships based on the gender of the individuals involved. Users can also make a “custom” event on the individual’s timeline and label it however they please. This has the potential to be used for gender transition markers, as one example.

Find a Grave

Another large website is Find a Grave ( which allows users to create “memorial pages” devoted to individual graves, organized by cemetery. Find a Grave is technologically much simpler than, but it has become a large resource because of the sheer amount of information that volunteer users have placed on the site for over 120 million graves as of 2015.

On a memorial page, the deceased individual may be assigned a first, middle, and last name, along with a nickname (which will appear in quotation marks) and a maiden name (which will display in italics), plus a prefix (Mrs., Sir, etc.) and a suffix (Jr., Sr., etc.). The nickname and maiden name fields may be co-opted for a person who had multiple names in multiple gender roles, if those names are relevant to that person’s life story, of course. Multiple images can be uploaded. These are usually photographs of the gravestone but can be photographs of the individual during life.

A optional section called “Family links” connects the memorial pages of immediate family members. The options are “Father,” “Mother,” and “Spouse” (along with “Year Married”). Multiple spouses can be added. It is only in the designation of “Father” and “Mother” that binary gender is relevant on Find a Grave. There is no pink and blue color-coding as on Ancestry, and Find a Grave can display a biographical text paragraph on the front of the memorial page without making the user “drill down” into sub-pages for that information.

What will users imagine next?

Some users’ ideas may be more creative – or simply more accurate – than existing software will allow them to input into the system. Genealogical work is highly collaborative, so it is likely that new conventions will emerge and that new technologies will be introduced to accommodate them.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Perhaps 'God's Not Dead' (2014 film) but these arguments for him don't have legs

“God’s Not Dead” (2014) is a horrifically bad film, certainly from a philosophical perspective and also from an entertainment perspective.

It misrepresents what everyone, theist and atheist, over the age of 18 actually believes. The hero of this film, which is set on a college campus, is an undergraduate Christian who is convinced of the vague proposition that there must be meaning to life and that the universe must have a creator, but who – certainly at first, and regrettably still at the end – cannot articulate anything beyond this (although his public speaking presentation skills do improve a bit). The young pastor doesn't say anything much of use to a young woman who has just been beaten by her father and thrown out of her house, other than that he's glad she's a brave Christian, and when someone lies dying by the side of the road, the pastor encourages him to accept Jesus before he meets God instead of attempting to stop him from bleeding out. The "other side" fares no better in its representation. The atheist professor refers to religion as a "mind virus," but he is not merely an adversary – he is clearly of Satan. He does not have a kind, humble, or humorous word for anyone. He persistently humiliates his girlfriend in front of his colleagues. With a sociopathic stare, he says that he is the “god” of his classroom and threatens to sabotage a teenager's academic career because the teenager persists in asserting theistic beliefs. Unaccountably, he allows the student to give lectures on theism during his philosophy class that is supposed to be about atheism. At first timid, the student gradually becomes bolder at asserting his beliefs in this venue, until at last he yells at the professor, “Why do you hate God?” and the professor screams back in front of the large audience, “Yes, I hate God! All I have for him is hate.” The kid whispers: “How can you hate someone if they don’t exist?” Touché.

This extreme character dysfunction is heightened by the context of the deep, unredeemed suffering of many characters. The plight of the girlfriend of the satanic atheist professor is presented from her perspective, as she quietly puts up with a terrible amount of verbal abuse before finally quietly leaving him. Another woman is diagnosed with cancer and submits to a body scanner that she is told will rip any bits of metal out of her body; her supposed boyfriend leaves her without a single sympathetic word when she gives him the news. A Muslim girl begins listening to Billy Graham sermons in secret, and when her father catches her, he hits her so hard in the face that she flies off the bed, and when she asserts that Jesus is her savior, he hits her again, carries her downstairs, places his hand around her neck, then slams the door on her forever. An undergraduate receives paranoid phone calls from his father instructing him to publicly adopt the atheist stance so that he can fit in and succeed.

The end of the film presents the call to action to send a text message containing the film's name and message, "God's Not Dead," to everyone one knows, during a rock concert song that contains the interminable visual of millennial concertgoers repeatedly twiddling their phones as a reminder that one is not supposed to be watching the film anymore. The message manages to be both underwhelming (being not dead is the best God can do?) and unsupported (if he's not dead, why doesn't he appear in the movie?).

The film is short on actual philosophical arguments. The undergraduate would-be lecturer begins by saying that God's creation of the world – at least according to the minimalist description of it that is presented in the Bible, "Let there be light" – is compatible with the Big Bang theory.

This is followed by a torturously bad approach to the question of whether the universe was created. The only reasonable sentence in the discussion is: “Both the theist and the atheist are burdened with answering the same question of how did things start?” The undergraduate acknowledges that positing God as the creator of the universe simply raises the question "Who created God?" He answers that God is "uncreated," yet he does not accept the competing atheist account that the universe is uncreated. He concludes: “To the extent that you don’t allow for God, you’d be pretty hard pressed to find any credible alternative explanation for how things came to be.” The sociopathic atheist professor, rather than pointing out that the mere positing of an act of divine creation does not in itself explain how anything came to be, simply sneers: “Well, I imagine you’re pretty pleased with yourself.”

The student later addresses – I hesitate to say "engages" – a single sentence by physicist Stephen Hawking in The Grand Design: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” He lacks the wit to immediately respond with the obvious rejoinder, "Well, how did gravity get created?" Instead, he must go home to think about it, where he prepares for the next class with an argument by Christian mathematician John Lennox who says that the assertion that the universe “needs” to create itself is a circular argument that fails to explain “how and why it was created” such that it exists to "need" to do anything. This makes sense – but, again, positing God does not fix the problem, but merely pushes all the same problems onto God.

Next, the student embraces the idea of evolution and creation simultaneously, without flagging the tension between the two ideas. He says that God was needed to set life in motion before any living things could begin to evolve. He then implies that the Bible is a better authority on evolution than the 19th-century scientist Charles Darwin, since Darwin once got something wrong. Darwin stated that "Nature does not jump," meaning that evolution was gradual, when, in fact, when seen from the perspective of eons, evolution does move faster at some points than at other points. So, since Darwin was wrong on that point, one should therefore place faith in the Bible's creation story – because, I suppose, the Bible never gets anything factually wrong – while somehow modifying the Biblical narrative to allow for evolution as a subset of the creation story, a process that is "divinely controlled from start to finish” rather than a “blind unguided process".

Next, the student raises the problem of evil. He asserts that God gives people free will, which enables evil, but that this is only a temporary problem, since God's agenda is for people to eventually go to heaven “with their free will intact”. Someday, he says, God will destroy evil altogether. This account makes no sense whatsoever. First of all, evil is not defined here; depending on the definition of evil, perhaps God could have created a world where evil was impossible – either logically impossible, because there are no laws that can be broken, or physically impossible, because evil acts cannot actually be performed. But secondly, even taking the more usual assumptions that it's valuable for humans to have free will even though the exercise of free will can lead to the violation of moral rules and the initiation of human suffering, it is not obvious why God needed to create a cosmological system wherein either the possession of free will or the existence of evil is needed for people to go to heaven. It isn't clear what people would do with their free will in heaven, especially after that fine day when God abolishes evil, which indirectly abolishes free will. Then people will no longer have free will either in heaven or on earth, which invalidates the whole point of the exercise (as described by the student lecturer), which was to allow people to commit evil on earth so that they could have free will in heaven. Thirdly, when the atheist professor raises the standard objection to the problem of evil – that no possible theological contortion can be a morally adequate justification for allowing suffering, an objection that many religious people also recognize as fatal to the enterprise of theodicy – he then abandons his own victory by immediately changing the subject.

The last subject, at the professor's initiative, is “moral absolutes.” He allows the student lecturer to neatly dispose of this by pointing out that the professor probably has an opinion against academic cheating, which therefore is a "moral absolute". (The concept of a "moral absolute" is never defined. Depending on what one means by "absolute" – regarding the origin of a normative belief or rule, the extent of its intended application to others, and what makes a belief or rule specifically a moral one – the professor's assumed stance against cheating may or may not be a moral absolutist stance.) The student then appeals to a paraphrase of Dostoevsky: “If God does not exist, then everything is permissible.” In addition to the lack of a moral "standard," he also claims that there would be "no real reason" to be moral (which seems to appeal to human motivation or logic, which is a different matter), and that furthermore, everything would be “meaningless” and humans would be reduced to the moral equivalent of “goldfish”.

His conclusion is that atheists such as his professor want to “take away the choice” of people to believe. Perhaps a few do, just as countless theistic individuals and religious institutions have historically coerced their followers and even exacted the death penalty for noncompliance, but this is surely an ad hominem argument that has nothing to do with whether the audience has been presented with sound philosophical arguments for or against God's existence. For the record, the audience received no such thing.