Genealogies of Modernity Episode 3: What Is Genealogy?


Genealogy, in Charles Darwin’s terms, is the study of “descent with modification.” Taken as an analogy for the study of history, genealogy can guard against the potential dangers of claiming modernity. Against the effort to erase the past, genealogy asserts that our ancestry will always be with us. Against the effort to master the past, genealogy reminds us that our descendants have the freedom to create new futures. Sociologist Alondra Nelson tells the story of how African Americans have used DNA-informed genealogy to recover African identity despite slavery’s erasure of family history. Genealogical thinking can help us shape a disposition to the past that recognizes the legacy of injustice while also fostering human flourishing in the future.

Researcher, writer, and episode producer: Ryan McDermott, Associate Professor of English, University of Pittsburgh; Senior Research Fellow, Beatrice Institute

Featured Scholars:

  • Alondra Nelson, Harold F. Linder Professor of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study
  • Caro Pirri, Assistant Professor of English, University of Pittsburgh
  • Michael Puett, Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology, Harvard University

Special thanks to: Eduard Fiedler, Christopher Firestone, Thomas A. Lewis, Thomalind Martin Polite, Sara Trevisan

For transcript, teaching aids, and other resources, click here.

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