Thursday, November 15, 2007

Descended from Helmholtz, Wundt, James, and Freud: Neurogenealogy

According to, I'm an academic descendant of Hermann von Helmholtz, Wilhelm Wundt, William James, Clark Hull, and yes, that would-be saboteur of the classical model of aphasia, Sigmund Freud. What's more, the originator of the classical model, Wernicke, is a distant cousin. I'm apparently also a sibling of Michael Tarr and Martha Farah, and uncle to the likes of Sharon Thompson-Schill, Isabel Gauthier, Josh Tenenbaum and many more (from whom I never receive holiday cards, btw). These linkages are all through my post-doc advisor Stephen Pinker. My PhD advisor, Edgar Zurif, didn't even get a twig listed. I wonder if that makes this my adopted tree.

One wonders about the accuracy of these trees, but ultimately it doesn't much matter because for the most part everyone is related to everyone else, and just about everyone's lineage can be traced back to luminaries like Helmholtz and James. It's kind of like real family trees: fascinating to dig into, but once you are a couple generations removed, they're pretty much meaningless. (Did I tell you I was related to Wild Bill Hickok, and that the Hickoks came from Stratford-upon-Avon and were neighbors -- OK, well, employees actually -- of the Shakespeares? The only advantage my distant history ever brought me was that I got into the tourist-attraction cemetery where Wild Bill is buried, for free.)

For an interesting essay on the psychology and evolutionary significance of kinship and genealogy, check out Steve Pinker's recent piece in the New Republic, "Strangled by Roots."

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