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Seeing Pedigrees


By Roger Lyons
A version of this article originally appeared in OwnerBreeder journal.

       To anyone who has been introduced to thoroughbred breeding during the computer age, the idea that a pedigree is an historical representation could not but seem quaint. True, the information contained in a pedigree is historical, but, understood in terms of the “catalogue-style pedigree” or the “five-generation pedigree,” a pedigree is more like a picture than a story, in the sense that it is not so much something that is heard, or even read in the most ordinary sense of the term, as it is something that is looked at. Our sense of what a pedigree is has been conditioned in recent years by an orientation that is increasingly visual and pictorial, rather than historical, and computerization has done its part to advance this shift in perspective.
       One thing that is distinctive about a visual orientation is that it emphasizes the formal and organizational aspects of a representation over the substantive or constitutive aspects. It may not be possible to explain this here in a completely satisfactory way, but I can at least exemplify the effects of the visual orientation, which is by its very nature ahistorical.
       We all know that the word "Secretariat" is the name of a very special horse, and we are familiar to varying degrees with stories of this horse. Hearing the name "Secretariat" in the context of a story of Secretariat differs from the experience of seeing Secretariat?s name in a five-generation ancestry or on a catalogue page. The difference essentially is that to some extent these familiar visual representations empty the horse out of the name "Secretariat."
       So as not to belabor precise definition of the visual orientation, I will point to some effects it has on the way thoroughbred breeders approach pedigree research.
       Representations of thoroughbred ancestries customarily display duplicated names in bold-face type. In great part because of this visual effect, nothing about these ancestries attracts more attention than the inbreeding involved. Some would argue that this is appropriate since inbreeding is the most important breeding method available, and it can be argued that genetic knowledge confirms this. I would argue, however, that more breeders than a reasonable person would like to think are selecting stallions in great part because of the visual effect of the bold-face type that appears in the ancestry of the prospective foal, rather than because of any demonstrable merits of the inbreeding method used.
       The visual orientation carries belief in inbreeding far beyond the scope of genetic or statistical knowledge. As a consultant, I frequently hear the words, “This inbreeding looks good to me. What do you think?” There can be no doubt what is to be made of this question. The inbreeding looks good because, first of all, there is an underlying assumption that inbreeding in and of itself has an inherent and absolute value. But, more explicitly, there is something about the arrangement of bold-face type that is appealing to the eye. But does appearance correspond with reality? Is it really a good thing to inbreed to that particular ancestor in that particular way?
       The eye is attracted to pattern, and so are pedigree analysts who believe that the ancestoral objects of inbreeding are less important than the visual arrangement of their names in the binary tree that represents genetic descent. They believe that the effects of inbreeding are determined by the arrangement of bold-face type. Especially important to many of them is the question whether a given bold-face name is linked to a male or female node of the binary tree. This approach has no basis whatever in genetics and no empirical ground other than the most impressionistic observation. It has much in common with forms of oracular interpretation on which prophecy is based, especially in the sense that prophecy is always formally linked with the visual faculty and understood as a way of seeing.
       Where commercial interests are concerned, on the other hand, the ancestor to which inbreeding is done matters a great deal. It is, in fact, the name of the ancestor that determines how good the inbreeding looks. If seeing one Mr. Prospector in an ancestry is a very good thing, why, then, two should be twice as good. At the Keeneland November sale there were nine in-utero foals closely inbred to Mr. Prospector. These matings would appeal most to a buyer who is sold on close inbreeding and who believes that inbreeding must be good if only it involve fashionable names. This is a somewhat less overt form of visual thinking.
       The historical orientation is a bit more revealing. It happens that there have been only eight stakes winners inbred to Mr. Prospector, and, even though this is a small group, an important difference between it and the group of in-utero foals is clearly evident. Six of the eight stakes winners inbred to Mr. Prospector involve Fappiano in one way or another, but Fappiano was involved in only two of the nine in-utero foals. The bold-face type that indicates inbreeding to Mr. Prospector looks the same in all of these cases, and, if that is all you see, then what you see is what you get.
       The effect of this visual orientation is that many otherwise serious breeders do not discriminate among inbreeding that has a proven record of success, inbreeding that has a proven record of failure, and inbreeding that has an insufficient record on which to base an assessment. If inbreeding has as much value as some breeders and their advisors suppose, then an inquiry into the value of any given instance of it should not end with a consideration of the typographical effect of its representation.
       The historical record should be consulted as to the ancestor that is the object of inbreeding, the identity of the strains of descent of that ancestor, the generational distance of that ancestor, and any other pertinent variables to which the historical record might be called upon to bear witness.
       It is only in the historical context of the late 20th century, which is penetrated by the visual orientation, that it could make any sense at all to say, “This race should confer black type, but that one should not.” In such a context, the breeder or buyer who can assess pedigree from the standpoint of historical knowledge will be something of an anachronism, but will have an advantage over those who are led along by appearances.

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