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Genealogy is an Art

By Steve Johnson, February 1, 2000

Recently, a discussion arose as to whether Genealogy is a form of Science or a form of Art. Are genealogists "scientists" or "artists"?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "art" as

  • the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects.

It also defines "science" as

  • a knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws, especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.

I tried to convey this point to someone recently as we argued over whether Genealogy is an art or science. I believe it is an art. Yet, as my command of the English language is less than desirable, I could not adequately express what I was thinking. After having a chance to look up the definition of the terms in the dictionary, I wanted to make another attempt at explaining myself.

My friend maintained that Genealogy is an "exact science" because everyone has exactly one mother and one father. That is, one's origins is a natural fact; each one of us came from two specfic people. I could not argue with that. But what my friend described is not Genealogy, but rather, Genetics.

Genealogy, on the other hand, is the act of establishing one's lineage. Genealogists are interested in achieving a goal, producing an end result. They use their knowledge of history, religion, culture, and heritage, and rely on their investigative skills to produce proof. Proof is the goal of genealogical effort. This fits the Merriam-Webster definition of "art".

Science, on the other hand, is a study. Science does not attempt to achieve a goal or produce an end result, but rather to study something and understand its processes and properties. One might argue that to develop a cure for cancer is science. No it's not. It's an art. The study of cancer (oncology), is a science, but to find a cure is an art.

For example, Biology is a science focusing on the study of living organisms and vital processes. Biologists study the properties of viruses, bacteria, and it's effects on the on the human body. Physicians will use that knowledge to diagnosis someone's illness, determine a treatment regimen, and prescribe drugs. Physicians are a part of the "medical arts".

The application of knowledge and skill to achieve a goal is Art. It does not matter if that that goal is to compose a song, save someone's life, or to establish a fact.

Genealogists are concerned with achieving a goal: to establish proof of one's lineage. Genealogists will use their knowledge of history, culture, religion, and geography to reach that goal.

The study of history, culture, and religion is referred to as the Humanities. Humanities is the study of human constructs, whereas Science is the study of natural processes. If a genealogist studies a lineage with no other goal but to satisfy his or her thirst for knowledge, it would be classified as a humanity. But when a genealogist uses the knowledge gained from that lineage to proove one's descendancy, it is an art.

Since most of genealogists are trying to achieve a goal, we are artists. But we can also be scholars of the humanities. In fact, most of us often are, as we study our own lineage, gaining knowledge.

But it's when we apply that knowledge towards the achievement of a goal, that it becomes an art.

- Steve Johnson

Steve is the editor of The Cemetery Column, and is the webmaster of Cemetery Records Online.

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