I’m not all that interested in the world’s largest reunion being planned for June 6 in New York City. But there were two reasons I decided to look into it and actually “join” the supposed 81 million relatives that author A.J. Jacobs has been collecting.
Possibly some of our Family Ties readers might be interested in the project, so it might be worthwhile if I read up on the reunion and then let you know what I thought about the whole deal.
Secondly, I find Jacobs to have such a warped sense of what a cousin is, that I just can’t let it go without comment.
You may be familiar with Jacobs as author of books such as “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.” He also is an editor for Esquire and writes for The New York Times Sunday Review. If you visit his website at ajjacobs.com, and click on “About,” you will find an interesting article called “Are You My Cousin?”
He does exhibit some skepticism about a correspondent who claims he can trace Jacobs’ lineage back to King David. But where Jacobs really goes off the rails is in promoting his very loose definition of a cousin.
For example: In the March 9, 2015, issue of People magazine, Jacobs says to actress Jane Krakowski: “You are my aunt’s seventh cousin’s wife’s husband’s eighth cousin twice removed.”
So let us consult “Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.” One definition of a cousin is “a collateral relative more distant than a brother or sister, descended from a common ancestor.”
If you are my cousin, we share grandparents or great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents or great-great-great-grandparents, and so forth. There is a genetic connection.
If your description of a relationship involves a connection by marriage, with the word “wife” or “husband” inserted therein, that’s an in-law, not a cousin.
“Webster” does list as a third definition of cousin “loosely, any relative by blood or marriage.” But I don’t know any genealogists who use that definition of cousin. To do so would sort of negate the point of doing genealogy, I believe.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t be a cousin to someone who is related to you by marriage. What it means is that you have a genetic connection, one or more common ancestors, a relationship that does not depend on the person being an in-law.
Let’s return to what Jacobs told Krakowski: “You are my aunt’s seventh cousin’s wife’s husband’s eighth cousin twice removed.”
And we’ll isolate the phrase “cousin’s wife’s husband.” Shouldn’t the cousin’s wife’s husband be the cousin? Perhaps Jacobs is referring to the wife’s ex-husband.
But aren’t we all cousins through Adam and Eve? We can be. At such time as the world became populated, I believe God came up with some other people to be involved for the sake of good genetics.
You also may have heard of “Mitochondrial Eve,” a woman who lived in Africa thousands of years ago and was an ancestor of us all. Scientists are clear that she wasn’t our earliest ancestor, nor was she our only female ancestor back then. But they believe that everybody alive now is descended from her — so we would indeed all be cousins.
Many of my favorite genealogical conversations were with the late Dr. Thomas Roderick, a prominent geneticist at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor and former president of the Maine Genealogical Society.
He once told me, “I believe that everyone who has at least one-quarter old New England ancestry is related to everybody else who has at least one-quarter old New England ancestry.”
He didn’t mean just people who had an ancestor on the Mayflower in 1620, but those who can trace at least one-quarter of their 1620-1630s forebears back to New England.
If you are interested in the actual Global Family Reunion being organized by Jacobs on June 6, visit globalfamilyreunion.com. The site will invite you to enter some of your ancestors, which I did in hopes that I’d get some kind of email telling me who I’m related to. That hasn’t happened.
Jacobs does plan to write a book about this, and good for him. I also should mention that the reunion’s website lists many professional, qualified genealogists as being involved in this project. In addition, if the reunion makes a profit, the proceeds will be donated to Alzheimer’s research.
I’m quite sure that Jacobs knows what a cousin is. When he’s riffing on his relatives, sure it’s a gimmick, though I do believe him when he says he’d like the whole world to think of other people more kindly, and thus avoid war.
But I’m sorry to see him add to the confusion about cousins, which can be a tricky thing to figure out in the best of circumstances. Speakers at the global reunion will no doubt do a great job, but what most people will remember is Jacobs’ error-filled sound bites about cousins.
The Hancock County Genealogical Society will meet at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 11, in the Riverview Room of Ellsworth Public Library. Nancy Milliken Mason will speak on “Genetic Genealogy — How, When, Where and Why.”
For information on researching family history in Maine, see Genealogy Resources under Family Ties at bangordailynews.com/browse/family-ties. Send genealogy queries to Family Ties, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402, or email email@example.com.