Six Degrees

Massive Genealogy Project Shows We Are Family—Literally

The Global Family Reunion aimed to show the familial bonds between 6.7 million people.

06.07.15 7:52 PM ET

Most family reunions invite several dozen people, maybe in some cases a hundred or more—but one held on Saturday invited 6.7 million.

The Global Family Reunion in New York City was spearheaded by A.J. Jacobs, a writer and humorist who spent the past two years attempting to compile the world’s largest family tree for his upcoming book It’s All Relative. After publicizing the project in national outlets and using user-uploaded profiles from genealogy websites including WikiTree and Geni, Jacobs was able to prove definitive familial links to an astounding 6.7 million people.

Not all of those newly-discovered connections were welcome news. “Turns out my wife, Julie, and I were 8th or 9th cousins,” Jacobs told The Daily Beast. “I thought it would spice up our marriage. She didn’t.”

Several thousand proven relatives—Julie among them—showed up on Saturday from as far away as New Zealand and Estonia for the family reunion which featured dozens of talks and performances. Upon entering the grounds, attendees were greeted by a gigantic poster visually plotting Jacobs’ connections (and by implication the attendees’ connections as well) to luminaries as wide ranging as Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Hillary Clinton, Hugh Hefner, and Queen Elizabeth. As for six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, Jacobs is actually 23 genealogical steps away.

Henry Louis Gates emphasized during his talk to a packed audience that intermarriage between races and ethnicities mean many people are more closely related than they may visually appear. “The average African American has 24 percent European ancestry,” the host of PBS’s genealogy show Finding Your Roots noted. “The same white man fathered all of my great-grandmother’s children. She took his identity to the grave.”

Morgan Spurlock, the documentary filmmaker best known for Super Size Me, marveled during his talk at the diversity of the crowd, saying his ‘family’ was significantly more diverse than he originally thought. “I’m from West Virginia, so almost everybody in my family was related even before marriage anyway,” Spurlock quipped. “It wasn’t a family tree, it was a family stick.”

Jacobs, who initially conceived of the project after receiving an email from an Israeli who discovered they were 12th cousins, acknowledged the surprising amount of diversity he discovered during his research. “I thought my roots were completely Ashkenazi Jewish from Eastern Europe,” Jacobs told The Daily Beast. “Yet according to my DNA genome analysis, I have a little Scandinavian in me, there’s even a little Asian. The thing is, we’re all a mix.”

Evoking a sense of family is a well-known way to create emotional bonds, from sports teams to national identity. The flip side is that evoking a sense of “other” and “not like us” is an emotional underpinning of polarization, racism, and genocide. Much of the strife and public discord in modern society is caused at least in large part by people seeing certain groups as “other,” from unprecedented polarization in our politics to tensions between minority groups and law enforcement.

Evidence suggests the best way to change hearts and minds may be not through numbers or facts, but through family. A Harvard University study last year found that male judges with daughters were more likely to vote in favor of women’s rights in judicial cases than judges with only sons. Support for same-sex marriage increased substantially in the past decade among those with a family member who came out, while remaining virtually stagnant among those who hadn’t. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the first incumbent Republican to back same-sex marriage in 2013, cited his gay son as the turning point in his opinion.

The expression is true: Blood is thicker than water. Modern science and technology are now expanding the reach of “blood.”

The lesson of the Global Family Reunion is that the sense of family could expand beyond our current horizon. Some geneticists have estimated that no two people on Earth are further apart than approximately 100th cousins. A team writing in Nature estimated the most recent common ancestor of all current humans may have lived as recently as five thousand years ago.

DNA analysis validates our genetic connections at proximities far closer than most people would usually estimate. The rapper Baba Brinkman made a similar point during his intense musical performance at the reunion: “My family passed through some adaptive radiations / We started as Africans, and then became Eurasians / It’s back to my origin, ‘cause I understand / For every color of man, Africa is the motherland.”

My common relative with Jacobs is 31 genealogical degrees of separation away, through a woman named Anneke Jans, born 1605 in Norway. (Fun fact: her husband had the whimsical rhyming name Everardus Bogardus.) My originally uploaded tree I had previously put together myself didn’t go back nearly that far. Through Jacobs’ project on WikiTree I discovered not only my connection to Jacobs but also a part of my family about which I never knew. The Global Family Reunion’s message was that everyone on planet Earth is family.

The message is not that we should embrace or accept people in ISIS because they might be our 37th cousin. Republicans and Democrats won’t join hands and sing the Sister Sledge song “We Are Family” just because Barack Obama is 10th cousins once removed from Rush Limbaugh and eighth cousins with Dick Cheney.

But near the Reunion’s end when Sister Sledge in fact appeared on the main stage to energize the audience with precisely that song, Republicans and Democrats did sing together. People with all kinds of varying or opposite characteristics sang along as well, a true moment of musical togetherness in sharp contrast to the world’s best-selling song this week being Taylor Swift singing “Now we’ve got bad blood.”

The event may have fallen short of one of its goals: breaking the Guinness World Record for largest family reunion, held by 4,514 members of the Porteau-Boileve family in France. But enough people still showed up that when observing the fellow Global Family Reunion attendees, we were every race and every skin color, every nationality and every ethnicity, every height and every physical build. Yet our closeness that day didn’t make us merely like a family. We were a family.

Back in 1979 that song’s title was meant as a metaphor. By 2015 the song’s title can now be felt as literal truth.

Jesse Rifkin has been published in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA TODAY, Chicago Tribune, and Hartford Courant. Named by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists as the 2012 college newspaper columnist of the year, he was most recently a reporting intern for the Huffington Post.