I’ve got a family reunion coming up in a couple of weeks. As you might expect from a New Yorker named Jacobs, my reunion will have more than a minyan of Jews of Eastern European descent, such as my Uncle Henry and Aunt Carol.
But it’ll also have Carol and Henry’s son-in-law, of Korean heritage. And my Peruvian brother-in-law. And my cousin’s Indian husband.
Oh, and also a minister, a Buddhist lama, and an imam. A couple of bartenders too. No joke.
I’ve gotten RSVPs from an Estonian, a New Zealander, and a descendant of the Taino Indians of the Caribbean. There will be progeny from the Mayflower and the Maori. There will be short and tall, Marxist and libertarian. There will be heteros, L's, G's,B's, T's, Q's, I's, P's, and A's.
What I’m trying to say is: It’s going to be really friggin’ diverse. Cover-of-a-liberal-arts-college-brochure diverse. The idea is, it’s a family reunion for the entire world. It’s called the Global Family Reunion, and the main event is in New York. I want thousands of attendees — a family-friendly Burning Man, with better bathroom facilities.
My goals for this event are somewhat paradoxical. I want to celebrate the idea of family while undermining it by arguing that we’re all part of the same family. We all share DNA and, thanks to genetic testing, you can trace your biological family with unprecedented accuracy. But with the broadening concept of family (Indiana notwithstanding), DNA is becoming less important to whom we consider our relatives.
I have another hope, which I know makes me sound like either a Haight-Ashbury throwback or Silicon Valley’s most grandiose CEO: I want to make the world a slightly kinder place. Mark your calendar, folks: June 6, the day all wars end forever.
To back up: About two years ago, I got an email from a man who had read one of my books. He wrote, “You don’t know me, but I’m your 12th cousin.” I figured the next email would tell me how I could wire money to his bank in Lagos. But it turns out he’s a dairy farmer on a kibbutz in Israel who has spent the last 30 years working on a mega-family tree of 80,000 people.
Part of me was alarmed. That’s a lot of bar mitzvah presents.
But part of me was comforted. Alone in my office, I felt connected to enough people around the world to fill Yankee Stadium twice.
So I got into ancestry. And it turns out the field is undergoing a kind of revolution, for two reasons: DNA testing and user-generated online family trees. Family trees hosted by the services Geni, FamilySearch, WikiTree, and Mocavo are mind-bogglingly big. They make 80,000 seem paltry. The biggest connected family tree is 240 million people, almost 5% of the Earth’s population.
These sprawling forests contain links by both blood and marriage, allowing you to find your (often lengthy) path to hundreds of celebrities and historical figures. (Consider my fifth great aunt’s husband’s brother’s wife’s seventh great nephew Barack Obama — mishpucha.) If you include cousins-in-law in your family — and I believe you should — you can pretty easily trace to anyone on Earth.
The study of genealogy has historically had a bit of an elitist strain. British aristocrats wanted to be able to trace their blood lines to the early kings. In early colonial America, genealogy was considered anti-democratic. But now, genealogy has been turned on its head. What was once exclusive is now inclusive. It’s like six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but we’re all Kevin Bacons.
These mega-trees face some pushback from traditional genealogists, especially when I throw around the word “cousin” too loosely. The strict definition of the word “cousin” is two people who share a common ancestor. But I say that’s too narrow for today’s world. You no longer have to share DNA to share potato salad. There’s gay marriage, open adoption, sperm donorship, surrogates. The U.K. just legalized DNA from a third party in fertilized eggs to swap out genetic diseases. Meaning that technically, these kids will have three biological parents. The gloriously complicated family trees of the future will require serious computing power.
If you take the narrow view of ancestry, what do you say to adopted kids? And what about kids whose presumed dad is not the biological father? There’s a euphemism in genealogy, “non-paternity events.” The “event” is mom slept with some other guy. It’s estimated that about 3% of offspring around the world are "non-paternity events." That’s more than 200 million people. I talked to a genealogist recently who said that his client wanted her pet dogs included on the family tree.
There’s something arbitrary about obsessing over biological ancestry these days, when there are so few thrones at stake. Besides, we all share a couple of ancestors. Scientists call them Mitochondrial Eve and Y Chromosomal Adam, and they lived about 150,000 years ago. We all share a bit of their DNA, if not their strict Paleo diet. They are our great-great-great-(repeat for several paragraphs)-grandparents. One MIT study said our most recent common ancestor was even closer than that. According to this study, the farthest cousin you have on Earth is about a 70th cousin.
Consider this: You have an unfathomable number of ancestors. If anyone tells you they are a direct descendant of Ben Franklin, you can remind them they are also a direct descendant of about 4,000 other people who lived at the same time — servants, gamblers, washerwomen, and thieves. Genealogy has a bit of astrology to it: You see what you want to see.
Speaking of seeing what I want to see: It’s my unabashedly idealistic belief that when we see how closely we’re connected, we’ll treat each other with just a smidge more kindness. Not everyone buys this, I understand. I was recently asked, “If your optimism is for real, please share your secret and/or prescriptions!”
Like my forty-fifth cousin John Lennon, I’m a dreamer. But I swear I’m not the only one. I’ve seen a small but real shift in my own perspective — and I’ve heard of similar shifts from dozens of others who work on these mega-trees.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the action movie director Brett Ratner. I always found him to be an insufferable egomaniac.
But then I found out he’s my 17 steps away from me. And it made me reevaluate. Maybe I should give him the benefit of the doubt. He's probably not so bad underneath the bluster.
I know that’s a small example. But I hope that the Brett Ratner Effect will be felt throughout the world.
The “We Are the World” mindset doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s partly an act of will. I’m a longtime advocate of delusional optimism, the irrationally positive thinking entrepreneurs swear by. I spend a lot of energy forcing myself to be hopeful, otherwise I’d spend most of my days curled in a fetal ball and sobbing. I think delusional optimism is the only small chance we have of saving our species, and my children’s children’s children’s children.
It’s that partly feigned optimism that made me think the Global Family Reunion might work. I’m not sure what will happen at this event — it might be great, it might be a total disaster — but I’m confident that it will be memorably weird. My cousin Henry Louis Gates will be speaking. My other cousin David Blaine will be doing magic.
We’ll be attempting to break several records, including biggest family photo and most simultaneous reunions around the world (there are parties everywhere from Peru to an island off of Madagascar). And all proceeds go to the battle against Alzheimer’s, a disease that robs us of our family memories.
I’m inviting Brett. You're invited too. All 7 billion of you. You kind of have to come. You’re my cousin.
Want to read more essays from Inheritance Week? Sarah Hagi wrote about paying remittance. David Dobbs explained the genetic research industry’s exaggerated picture of genetic power. Susie Cagle wrote about the difficulty of selling her grandmother’s clothes and the worth of vintage. Syreeta McFadden reflected on what it’s like being brown in a world of white beauty. Sharon H. Chang wrote about society’s fixation with mixed-race beauty. Chelsea Fagan compiled lessons on love and money from our parents. And finally, Rosecrans Baldwin wrote about reciting poetry at public gatherings, something he inherited from his grandfather.
A.J. Jacobs is the author of four "New York Times" bestsellers, including "The Year of Living Biblically." He is the editor at large at "Esquire" and founder of the Global Family Reunion. (Photo credit: Julie Jacobs)
Contact AJ Jacobs at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.