Are we really all related? How many degrees of separation?

We are all related—or so they say. And the new science of DNA will prove it.

That, at any rate, is the thesis of well-known writer A.J. Jacobs, whom I wrote about just over seven years ago in a very different context. Now he has written a fascinating and often amusing book titled It’s All Relative: The World’s Family Tree. This effort details how he hosted what might have been the world’s largest-ever family reunion, under the premise that we’re all one big family. Even Sister Sledge attended, of course.

Here is progress so far in establishing a family tree for the whole world, as compiled from a combination of the new science of DNA, the older science of genealogical records, and too many unsubstantiated or partially substantiated claims:

We all, of course, knew that Barack Obama and Angelina Jolie are tenth cousins twice removed, didn’t we? But how did Trump get in there? Not to mention Chaucer? Well, if it is really true that we are all related, then there can be no surprises—except for that pesky lack of evidence in many cases. Think about how much trouble Elizabeth Warren got into a couple of years ago.

Anyway, Jacobs’s book interweaves two different threads: information about genealogy along with the trials and tribulations of arranging the giant reunion and establishing a world family tree, from his own family on out. All of it is fascinating. I am no longer surprised when I get an email saying that MyHeritage has discovered my sister’s ex-husband’s father’s aunt, or that somebody is my fourth cousin twice removed.

Enjoy the book. Check out the various services that will help you figure out who you’re related to and exactly how. Don’t be too trusting, at least if you go further back than four generations or so. And do watch the upcoming season of Finding Your Roots; I’m certainly planning on doing so. Finally, pay attention to this comment from Jacobs, which resonates with a post I wrote a few months ago: “If you want to get a professional genealogist really angry, tell them that your family’s name was changed at Ellis Island.” It wasn’t.

Categories: Books