The Ballad of You, Me and Us, Too!

Picture 10

One Mr. A.J. Jacobs, an author of sort of nerdy/geeky and astute, situationally observant, general interest books (and an editor at Esquire magazine), has launched a pbiblicallyroject about family trees (which will turn into a book, along with a documentary being done by Morgan “Supersize Me” Spurlock). One of his previous books which you may have heard of or read is The Year of Living Biblically which chronicles the often hilarious and usually fascinating effort he made to follow Old Testament rules from the Bible as literally as possible.

So why family trees?

Because, as any genealogist worth their salt knows (along with geneticists & anyone with a genuine understanding of the history of life on earth, humans specifically), we humans are all pretty closely related. In fact, we are all literally related, which is to say there are a few men and a few women who lived a while back from whom every single one of us on earth alive today and who has ever lived are all descended.

There are a cascade of genuinely excellent and positive ramifications of this, and the whole package of the tangibility of our actually being one big family and that handful of awesome take-aways apparently was visited upon AJ recently when he was contacted out of the blue by someone who introduced themselves as (and is) ted1a 12th cousin of his to include him in the several-thousand-person family tree that guy was compiling. (Something pretty common amongst those who stick with researching the family tree.) As he looked into it merely out of slightly (and healthy) skepticism it seems to have opened to him like the endlessly seductive flower it can be and he found himself hooked. But more, he decided to use his position as a smart pundit to raise the general call for attention to this thing.GFR

And so he’s created an event that will occur next June 6, 2015 in Queens, New York: The Global Family Reunion, to which all 7 billion of us are invited. ūüôā

In so doing, he’s inserted himself (and a starter couple of branches of his own immediate family tree of one of his grandparents and his uncle’s wife) into the global famtracking village, and so many of the most popular and useful web sites around which the genealogy world online flows are sort of partners in this global family reunion thing.

These include:

geni         family tree posting site; great interface; 70 million person tree!
See if you’re related and who the actual person-to-person links were and are.

wt         quickly growing family tree posting site w/ high-standards for accuracy of family trees.
Same thing as at; but they conveniently also¬† give you a #: a “degree of separation”

23     genetic testing service; compare genomes w/ AJ to see if you have common ancestors.

Ok, so here’s where if gets interesting.

1.    On my 1st pass checking our relation on it showed that AJ & I are 55th cousins.

What the…?!?!?!¬†¬† Really? But c’mon, really really? Ay yi yi.

Yup. We’re both descended from a certain Armenian prince from about the year 350 CE. Along with almost certainly most of the rest of the middle eastern, north african and European population (this is due to the existence of myriads of known, proven descents from European Medieval aristocracy to us commoners; and this Armenian prince is one of the ancestors common to that group, ergo: all os us in the Western World.)


…on looking more closely at his tree I realized that he’s only posted (&/or researched) but one of his grandparents; thus 75% of his ancestors (& genetic make-up) are missing. Further, the lines he does show were not only Jewish, but long lines of rabbinical families; ie, very orthodox, conservative people who were strict about marrying only fellow Jews.

In which case, the 55th cousins is put in very historically and practically enlightening contexts (one of the Killer Apps of genealogy; see this link to the points he makes about it in his TED talk about it.)

2.¬†¬† ¬†Fast fwd a few weeks. I checked our relation on again (since people are always adding new info, and indeed, AJ had done that, too.) And a friend who’s posting her tree to wikitree these days also checked her relation to him there.

Whaddaya know! Much closer…well, sort of. And almost identically close as my friend turned out to be. She’s 22 degrees of separation from AJ. I’m 23 degrees. OK, so it got cut down by a little more than half, but still. I’m not satisfied that he’s my 2nd cousin 7 times removed’s husband’s 5th great-granddaughter’s husband’s nephew. (Sat THAT ten times fast, or even two times!)

Plus this new “short cut” to being related to AJ is kind of “cheating” (already noted on the awesome blog “The Genetic Genealogist”). Cuz it’s not even a relation to him. It’s to his uncle’s wife. Looks like his mom’s brother married a gentile, and like at least or roughly half of the people in the United States, she has roots that can be traced to early New England. And since so many people over the years have successfully and reliably (meaning accurately) traced their predecessors to one or more of the many families of New England circa 1620-1700, there’s a huge pool of relations that anyone who does so taps into. Ergo, AJ Jacobs’ aunt-by-marriage is related not too-too distantly to a whole bunch of us. Check this linked footnote for an explanation of this.

Why am I so unsatisfied with the 23 degrees of separation? Cuz I know that’s absurdly far off base from how close our connection is. How could I know such a thing? Didn’t I just admit that his gene pool is primarily if not entirely Jewish?

Yes, these things are true. It’s my experience of the connections I’ve discovered of myself and my kids (and thus of my ex-wife, too) and my friends and disparate family members that convinces me w/out the shadow of a doubt that a ridiculously close connection could be and would be uncovered. Here are some examples, and this 1st batch are common to many of us in America:

me & President Barack Obama: 11th cousins
me & President George W. Bush: 10th cousins
me & President Bill Clinton: 8th Cousins
me & President Ronald Reagan: 15th cousins

me & the Princes of England (Wm & Harry): 11th cousins, once removed
me & David Rockefeller: 10th cousins, once removed

Other examples:

my childhood babysitter turned out to be 6th cousins to my mom’s mom!

the friend I mentioned above (22 degrees from AJ…so far…) turns out to be 5th cousins to one of my mom’s best friends

a friend’s German great-grandad and my American grandad were some few hundred yards away from each other across the Western Front in WW-I …and I found out the precise locations…and found it out at all!

two friends’ grandparents grew up about 20 blocks apart in northern Manhattan (utterly unknown to them).


W/ the “sharing genomes” function, you can compare your genome not only to each person you share with but you can also compare all of them to each other.

Not surprisingly, AJ & I shared ZERO segments of our DNA.


On a whim I thought I’d compare AJ to my 2nd cousin, one of my 65 known 2nd cousins w/ whom I’ve always vibed and maintained a relationship (it helps that we’re both in the SF Bay Area). Why this 2nd cousin? Because his father’s father was Jewish (making him, my cousin, a quarter Jewish); and from looking into his tree and things he’s told me about it, as well, we know that one of his lines was, like AJ’s, a rabbinical line.

Et viola! Whaddaya know! Bang! Sure enough, they share a segment of DNA on chromosome #10! It’s of the length that indicates they’re somewhere between 4th and 10th cousins.

So, from being 55th cousins…
…to being my 2nd cousin 7 times removed’s husband’s 5th great-granddaughter’s husband’s nephew
…it turns out that AJ Jacobs is actually (thus far):

my 2nd cousin’s 4th-to-10th-cousin.

Said another way:

~ It turns out  I share 10% of my genes with someone (a 2nd cousin) who does actually share a segment of DNA w/ AJ of the amount that implies they are roughly 4th to 11th cousins.

Oh yeah. And then there’s this connection to AJ:

due to social selection, his bread-n-butter job in the publishing  industry happens to be filling the vacancy left by my former SuperSignificant Other.


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