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"
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.