Thursday November 23, 2017

'We are all family': Author A.J. Jacobs on how everyone in the world's related to each other

"I think there is a hunger to know where you came from ... It gives them a sense of identity:" Author A.J. Jacobs 4:40

Listen 23:36

Read Story Transcript

Bestselling author A.J. Jacobs has many high-profile cousins: Daniel Radcliffe, Hillary Clinton, Lady Gaga.

In fact, he has millions of cousins — and so do you, he says.

Jacobs is on a quest to construct the largest family tree in history — a tree that he hopes will eventually include everyone on Earth.

It's the basis for his new book It's All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World's Family Tree.

Daniel Radcliffe - A.J. Jacobs cousin

Daniel Radcliffe, one of A.J. Jacobs's high-profile cousins. (A.J. Jacobs)

'It touches on everything from race relations to politics to history to gender to identity.' - A.J. Jacobs

It all started with an email from a distant cousin who, along with many others, was trying to build the biggest family tree on Earth.

"That just blew me away. I just loved this idea, and I became interested in genealogy which I always thought was kind of stodgy, but it turns out nowadays it's revolutionary. I would say thrilling. It touches on everything from race relations to politics to history to gender to identity," he tells The Current's host Anna Maria Tremonti.

A.J. Jacobs

Author A.J. Jacobs delves into the world of genealogy to find out how everyone in the world is connected to one another in his new book, It's All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World's Family Tree. (Lem Lattimer)

'We're all family'

Jacobs says we're all related through our common ancestors — Y chromosomal Adam and mitochondrial Eve, who lived in Africa a few hundred thousand years ago.

He says scientists estimate that the furthest cousin on Earth we each have is a 70th cousin.

"So when we're told as kids we're all family, that now scientifically you can see how we're all related through DNA and these massive family trees," Jacobs says.

'It's like six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but you're Kevin Bacon.' - A.J. Jacobs

There are now thousands of people working on family trees on a few different sites through something called collaborative genealogy which is sort of like the Wikipedia model, according to Jacobs.

He says he's spent days on these sites looking to see how he's related to everyone on Earth.

"It's like six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but you're Kevin Bacon," Jacobs tells Tremonti. 

A.J. Jacobs

'I think there is a hunger to know where you came from ... It gives them a sense of identity,' said author A.J. Jacobs. (Simon and Schuster)

Barack Obama's relative

In fact, Jacobs discovered that he was related to former U.S. President Barack Obama who is his fifth great aunt's husband's brother's wife's seventh great nephew.

"Practically my brother."

Jacobs says he hopes for the result of this growing and immense family tree.

"One of them was the really simple but profound idea that we are all family … my hope is that it will be a nudge in the right direction to help us treat each other less horribly," he tells Tremonti.

'It gives them a sense of identity.' - A.J. Jacobs

Jacobs says he felt humanity was going in the right direction as a species, but the last few years have shaken that faith.

"We seem to have gone so tribal and so divisive and everyone is so split into and obsessed with separateness and I like the idea of reminding us we do share 99.9 per cent of our DNA. This us vs. them mentality is very crippling."

But Jacobs also admits there is a narcissism to genealogy and could explain why it's now a billion dollar industry. Genealogy websites are the second most-visited category of website after pornography.

"I think there is a hunger to know where you came from and people do put a lot of stock into where their ancestors came from. It gives them a sense of identity. It also appeals to our vanity. We are a vain species. One of the genealogists said it's the museum of me."


Listen to their conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith.