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Michael Reeve

Ellen DeGeneres and Vladimir Putin are cousins. And you’re probably related to them, too

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We are family.

That's the well-known refrain of Sister Sledge's iconic song of the same name. And it's also writer A.J. Jacobs' current rally cry.

Jacobs, an author and an editor for Esquire, has earned a reputation for being somewhat of a human guinea pig. The recent tasks he's undertaken — obeying every commandment from the Bible for a year, becoming the healthiest person alive — have been extremely ambitious. And his newest project is no exception.

He's helping build a global family tree to help us realize how interconnected we really are. To pull this off, he's teamed up with researchers and experts, all of them committed to bringing Jacobs' family tree vision to life.

To celebrate the project, Jacobs is throwing a reunion next summer in Queens, NY for everyone in his global family — and you're invited.

Am I really Jacobs' cousin?

He thinks there's a good chance you might be. To be clear, though, by "cousin," Jacobs doesn't mean you're the child of his aunt or uncle — we usually use the word in this "first-cousin" sense. Rather, what he means by "cousin" is a person who shares a common ancestor with you.

Jacobs says he's up to over 75 million cousins on his family tree. Among that number are Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael Bloomberg, Albert Einstein, and (unfortunately, Jacobs says) Joseph Stalin.

Why does Jacobs think we're all cousins?

Geneticists can trace our family lines back to the same female ancestor, whom they call Mitochondrial Eve. Jacobs told me the farthest apart any of us are is 50th cousins.

Scientists use the term "Mitochondrial Eve" to refer to the oldest human woman from which we are all descended along the matrilineal line (that is, through our mother, and her mother, and her mother's mother…). The existence of Mitochondrial Eve was first announced in a 1987 study in of Science, though researchers are still debating to when, exactly, she lived — with many estimates around 100,000 to 200,000 years ago.

The point is this: if all of us trace our ancestry back through our mothers' lines, and we keep going back and back, sooner or later, we'll all end up at the one female who connects all of us. (i09 has a terrific explainer on Mitochondrial Eve, if you're interested.)

In this chart, the ancestry of five females, colored black, trace back to Mitochondrial Eve. (C. Rottensteiner — TiGen)

Mitochondrial Eve wasn't the only living female of her day — she's just one whose matrilineal line survives to this day.

The discovery of Mitochondrial Eve helped clarify that modern-day humans evolved from a single wave of Homo sapiens who spread out from Africa about 100,000 years ago and displaced earlier archaic human populations.

Are there any practical reasons for Jacobs' project? 

Absolutely. For one thing, Jacobs tells me, there are all sorts of scientific implications for tracing a globally family tree, which could help researchers learn about how traits are passed down throughout generations.

For example, Yaniv Erlich, a computational biologist, has been using similar family-tree data "to analyze the inheritance of complex genetic traits, such as longevity and fertility," reports Nature.

Jacobs says his project has a democratizing effect, as well. "There's sometimes a certain elitism when people cite their ancestries," he says. "Oh, I'm descended from Henry VIII, and you're not so you can't play at my golf club because you don't have the same blood." But now with what we're finding out about global family trees, he says, it's going to be hard to be that elitist, since "we can see how much everyone is related to everyone else."

Jacobs tells me his hope for his project is that it will urge all of us on to a little more kindness. "In today's world, you read every day about conflicts and tribalism," he says, all of which stem from a belief that one group is somehow better than another.

Of course, he notes, he's probably "overly optimistic" with his intentions. "I don't think KKK members will be singing Kumbaya with African Americans. But hopefully, they'll be nudged toward tolerance when they realize that the idea of racial purity is such a myth."

Jacobs told me one of the things he's most excited about is opening up the definition of family. "The definition of family has changed more in the last 30 years than it has in hundreds of years," he told me. "There's gay marriage, open adoption, sperm donors, surrogate mothers." Building a global family tree, he says, helps to highlight how expansive and inclusive the definition of family can be.

When is the family reunion?

June 6, 2015. It's going to be at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, NY, which is where World's Fairs were held in 1939 and 1964.

The event will include talks and performances from celebrities — yes, he's currently in talks with Sister Sledge to perform "We Are Family" — as well as many different ethnic cuisines. If, before the reunion, you can figure out if and how exactly you're related to Jacobs, then you can take part in his family portrait.

The current world record for largest family reunion is 4,514 attendees. Jacobs hopes to beat that.

Tickets are $20, and all proceeds will benefit Alzheimer's research.

How can I become part of the global family tree and track all of my cousins?

The easiest way, says Jacobs, is probably to to go to Jacobs' website, Global Family Reunion. On his website, you'll see several different options for tracking your ancestry.

Jacobs is a cousin to Abraham Lincoln. (Julie Jacobs)

Why is this happening now?

There have been quite a few developments in genetics testing in the past few years. Genetic sequencing technology is now faster and less expensive. (For example, a testing kit from 23andMe is just $99.) As a result, more people are able to track their own ancestries, which in turn, means an ever-expanding global family tree.

Though Jacobs notes that the global family tree isn't without errors, he thinks "there's a better chance it'll be more accurate if more people join." He likens it to solving a jigsaw puzzle with friends: the more people that help, the greater the chance of putting the puzzle together properly.

(Lead photo: Michael Reeve)

Brandon Ambrosino: Where did you first get the idea to throw a global family reunion?

A.J. Jacobs: I got an email out of the blue, about eight months ago, from a guy who read one of my books. He said, "You don't know me, but I'm your 12th cousin, and I have a family tree with 80 thousand people on it." I thought it was a Nigerian scam.

Brandon Ambrosino: But he actually was your cousin?

A.J. Jacobs: Yep! Turns out, thanks to DNA testing and the internet, for the first time in history, we can connect millions of people on the same family tree. It's just remarkable! In a few years, I think we'll have almost everyone on planet Earth on the same family tree, either through blood or marriage. That just blows me away! I love the idea that we are, in fact, one huge family.

So I became obsessed with helping to build this family tree of the entire world. And then I thought, since we have millions of family members, maybe I should throw us a party. So that's what I'm doing: I'm throwing a global family reunion, the biggest in history, and the most inclusive in history. It's next June, and tickets are $20. So everyone is invited, and we're gonna figure out how we're all related.

Brandon Ambrosino: You gave a TED Talk, and discussed some of the practical implications of this global family tree.

A.J. Jacobs: There are huge scientific implications for this. It's an unprecedented history of the human race. We've got a team of scientists at MIT studying the Geni family tree to learn how diseases and traits passed down. And we're already starting to see results.

Second, this makes it concrete — reinforces it in a such visceral way — that we are in fact one big family. We share 99.99 percent of the same DNA. We're so interconnected, it's mind-blowing! In today's world, you read every day about conflicts and tribalism. I'm hoping that, when people realize just how closely we're related, this will help nudge them toward a little more tolerance and kindness. You know, I don't think KKK members will be singing "Kumbaya" with African Americans, but hopefully, they'll be nudged toward tolerance when they realize that the idea of racial purity is such a myth.

We are all so intermixed — we're all so closely aligned. The farthest cousin you have on earth by blood is probably a 50th cousin.

Brandon Ambrosino: Are you really optimistic that people will treat others more kindly once they discover their interconnectedness?

A.J. Jacobs: I am, actually! Probably overly optimistic. I don't think world peace is gonna break out when people realize they're all close cousins. But I'm hoping it'll nudge people a little toward tolerance and kindness. Here's a trivial example of that.

You know Judge Judy, the TV judge? So I always found her incredibly obnoxious, and just really hard to take. So I searched and found she's my 11th cousin three times removed — we're closely related in the grand scheme of things. That changed my perspective, my whole paradigm. So I said, you know what? Maybe I should give her the benefit of doubt. Underneath all that bluster, maybe she's a sweetheart. Maybe I should think of her little more kindly. That, I know, is a silly example. But I've heard hundreds of examples from other people working on the family tree of how it changes your perspective just a little. It makes you think, you know what? Maybe I should give these people the benefit of the doubt. That's what I'm hoping will happen.

Brandon Ambrosino: What are some other implications of a global family tree?

A.J. Jacobs: Well, it also has a democratizing effect. There's sometimes a certain elitism when people cite their ancestries. "Oh, I'm descended from Henry VIII, and you're not, so you can't play at my golf club because you don't have the same blood." But now, that's hard to do because we can see how much everyone is related to everyone else. I can trace back to Henry VIII — granted, it's through marriage, but still, I'm related to Henry VIII. So it breaks down those elitist barriers in a wonderful way.

This is also the ultimate social network! I have found it a lot of fun when I want to approach someone, maybe someone I work with. I figure out how we're related, and then email them, "Hey, it's your cousin A.J.!" So that's a nice use for it as well. It's like LinkedIn.

Brandon Ambrosino: A global family tree really opens us traditional understandings of what constitutes "family."

A.J. Jacobs: That's one of the things I'm most excited about! I believe that the definition of family should be as expansive as possible.

The definition of family has changed more in the last 30 years than it has in hundreds of years: there's gay marriage, open adoption, sperm donors, surrogate mothers. This is a fascinating time in the history of family. Also, the more family members you have more, the more potential caretakers you have. As my aunt's eighth cousin, Hillary Clinton, says, "It takes a village."

DNA. (Heino Boekhout)

Brandon Ambrosino: Can you talk a bit about the science behind your project?

A.J. Jacobs: For those who don't believe in the literal biblical account — I count myself among those who don't, and we both know many people who do — science talks about Mitochondrial Eve and Y-Chromosome Adam. We all have a little bit of their DNA in each of us. These really were "Adam and Eve." They lived about 100-200,000 years ago, and they're our great, great — keep saying that about 3,000 times — grandparents. And they weren't necessarily together. They probably lived thousands of years apart. And they weren't the only ones around. There were thousands of other humans. But these are the first ones whose DNA lines have survived. And we all have a little bit of their DNA, so we really do all share common ancestry. And it's more recent than most people think. 100-200,000 years ago is not that long ago.

Brandon Ambrosino: So how far back can you trace your own line?

A.J. Jacobs: By blood? The 1500s. But that's because I have a noted Rabbi in my family — rabbis kept much better records, so I'm lucky in that way. After the 1500s, it gets a little hazy. With every generation, there's a little less certainty. So luckily, DNA is helping to clarify that. I do feel that with these family trees, there are lots of errors. I'm sure. But I'm pretty optimistic it will get better: the more people join, the more documentation comes. As a friend says, it's like thousands of people solving a jigsaw puzzle. There's a better chance it'll be accurate if more people join.

If you pretty much name anyone famous, there's a 90 percent chance I could figure out a way I'm connected to him or her. And it's the same with you, not just me. Everyone is his own Kevin Bacon, because everyone is connected by, well, maybe not six degrees, but 20 degrees to everyone else. Some of those I like; some I don't like. The people I like are Daniel Radcliffe, Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin, and some of my comedy heroes like Albert Brooks. Then there's the double-edged sword, because I'm connected to Jeffrey Dahmer and Joseph Stalin … so they're not all wonderful!

Daniel Radcliffe and A.J. Jacobs are cousins. (Julie Jacobs)

Brandon Ambrosino: Who do you think are some famous feuding couples that could stand to discover their relatedness?

A.J. Jacobs: I don't know if Boehner knows how closely he's related to Obama. He might actually — well, that might be a different story. But it would be nice for him to acknowledge that. I mean, what are some of the big feuds going on right now? It could be interesting to see how Vladimir Putin is related to Obama. Maybe Putin will be a little more soft-hearted towards him?

Brandon Ambrosino: Or maybe how he's related to Ru Paul.

A.J. Jacobs: Good idea! I like that! If you want to make that my quote instead of yours, I'll be happy to take it! I'm actually looking up Putin right now to see if he's on our family tree. Yup, there he is! I'll look and see if I can connect him to Ru Paul. Or, let's see, who else is a famous celebrity? Oh, Ellen [DeGeneres]! You know, I'm related to her! She's my first-cousin-once-removed's-husband's-seventh-great-aunt's-eighth-great-niece. So there you go. Practically my sister.

Ellen and Putin would be a wonderful thing. That may be just the solution that we need! Ah! They are connected, which means they are related. They're officially cousins!

Brandon Ambrosino: So how can people get involved with your family tree?

A.J. Jacobs: There are a couple different ways to do it. There's the DNA route, and then the big mega internet trees route.

The easiest way is, go on my website — ha, how's that for a plug! — and send in your grandparents' name and their birthdates. I've got wonderful volunteers to help you take that information and try to link you to the world family tree. But if you want to do an online version of that, main ones are geni.com and wikitree.

What you do is, you type in your family, your grandparents, and if you know them, your great grandparents. Hopefully what happens is, these websites will search and see if the A.J. Jacobs on your website is also on someone else's website — maybe a third cousin? And if it's the same A.J. Jacobs, then you can combine those family trees. So suddenly instead of a family tree with 40 people, you now have a family tree with 100 people. Then you combine again. And you keep on combining, and eventually, you end up on with a world family tree with millions of people on it. My friend says that in the old style of family trees, everyone has her own bonsai tree. But here, everyone is connected into a huge Amazonian forest of trees.

Brandon Ambrosino: And if we all do the family tree, then you think we'll all be more kind to one another?

A.J. Jacobs: That's the idea. Look at history: a lot of the horrible things people have done to each other is because one group said another was subhuman, or a different species. Until very recent, people thought of other races as different species! Now they can't do that anymore. We're not just the same species — we're the same family!

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


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