“Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.”

— Jonas Salk

For several years now, my sister, my husband and I have been involved in tracing our family histories through generations.  It is hard to say exactly what the fascination is, but I think it has something to do with discovering the things about ourselves that showed in our ancestors.  I think it also is a mission to discover the answer to the sometimes puzzling question, “Who am I?”

As an adoptive parent, I obviously have to believe that in the nature vs. nurture debate, nurture is an important ingredient; but as I have seen traits come forward that have nothing to do with our nurturing, I have a whole new sense of respect for nature — for the inborn strengths and weaknesses that are handed down from generation to generation. If nature plays an important role in our lives, then there may be things we can discover about ourselves as we explore the lives of our ancestors.

When I began to really pay attention to the accounts of life in my midwestern forbears, I was struck by their tenacity, their courage, and their resourcefulness as they settled in new lands without the conveniences of city life.  How does one decide to leave her homeland, take a long ocean voyage to a new shore, and then follow a path into the wilderness to build a new life?  I tried to imagine the stamina, the spirit of adventure, and the quiet strength that these people — my ancestors — must have practiced in order to carve out such an existence.  As I thought of the hardships they endured, I would also think of the difficult times in my own life and draw strength from the connection, from generation to generation, that predisposed me to stand strong in the face of adversity.

As I studied evolutionary biology with my granddaughter this year, we learned about adaptive evolution.  This is the amazing process that a population undergoes when it makes changes to its habits in order to best survive its environment.  I thought of the ways that my ancestors must have increased their survival skills when challenged by life in the wilderness.  I thought of how brushes with danger or illness or difficulty allow us to hone our abilities and bring them to completeness.  I thought of how their nature combined with their environment — nurture — and changed the traits that made their way into my own life.

If adaptive evolution has played a role in my ability to face life’s challenges, then I should be attentive to the ways that I am changing my family’s footprint on the planet.  What pieces of my own life will make the subtle changes in the nature that is handed down to generations that are as yet unborn?  What sorts of traits would I like to see in my grandchildren’s grandchildren that might be enhancements of the things I love best about my heritage?

The legacy we hand down to our future family is not merely accidental.  It is our duty to be mindful about being good ancestors.  The future of our world depends on it.