Magazine Editor Sets Out To Join The Global Family Tree

Esquire editor A.J. Jacobs is known for reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in order to become the world's smartest person. Now he attempts to prove he is related to everyone.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You might remember our friend A.J. Jacobs. He's always trying to better himself. Reading the complete Encyclopedia Britannica one- year, or living a whole year according to the Bible, or trying to become the healthiest person on earth. A.J. has a new scheme now. He wants to prove that he is related to every single person on the planet. Here he is to tell you about it.

A.J. JACOBS, BYLINE: A few months ago I got an email from a stranger. He wrote, you don't know me but I have a family tree with 80,000 people on it and you are my 12th cousin. As you can imagine, I was a bit taken aback. I kept waiting for him to request a wire transfer to his Nigerian bank account. Instead, he wanted to tell me about a revolution in genealogy. He explained, we've entered the age of the mammoth family tree, where through the web, millions can collaborate on their communal ancestry. I soon met another fan of this new genealogy - Randy Schoenberg.

RANDY SCHOENBERG: Instead of everybody having his or her own little bonsai tree - instead, you have this enormous forest of connected trees that everybody works on.

JACOBS: Randy is a lawyer in L.A. and he spends countless hours on a website called geni.com. What's remarkable is that Geni allows you to combine trees. If there's an A.J. Jacobs on my tree and I also appear on another tree, we have the option to merge our trees and then keep on merging. The result? A world family tree with a jaw-dropping 78 million people on it and 160 countries. That's 78 million relatives connected by blood or marriage - sometimes both.

R. SCHOENBERG: There are currently over 3 million users, so imagine an enormous jigsaw puzzle with 3 million people working on it at the same time.

JACOBS: I asked Randy whom he was researching? It was Dr. Ruth, the sex therapist.

R. SCHOENBERG: Dr. Ruth, right? And I can ask, how am I related? Takes only a few seconds. She is my sister-in-law's husband's great uncles's wife's first cousin's wife's aunt's husband's brother's wife's first cousin once removed's wife. Wow.

JACOBS: (Laughing) So you're practically brother and sister.

The tree is growing exponentially. In a few years, we'll probably have a family tree that connects nearly all members of the human family. The Pope and Beyonce. Nelson Mandela and Kevin Bacon. You and me.

CHRIS WHITTEN: I think we'll get into the billions in no time at all.

JACOBS: That's Chris Whitten, founder of another collaborative website called WikiTree. Chris, by the way, is my cousin through a 19th century judge named Henry Gilbert. He acknowledges this new global genealogy has its skeptics. Some critics question the accuracy of these mega-trees. Others don't like sharing their hard-earned data.

WHITTEN: You have a lot of genealogists who spent decades growing their family tree. The idea of shifting gears and making it our family tree, where everybody shares information, is very difficult.

JACOBS: Other far-flung relatives of mine ask, why do we even want a world family tree? Will it mean we have to buy thousands of bar mitzvah presents? No, but it will, I think, make the world a better place.

First, there's the scientific value. A team of experts at MIT is studying the tree to see how traits and diseases are passed down. And I'm also hoping that it'll drive home the fact that humans share 99.9 percent of our DNA. Racial purity doesn't exist, so maybe we should treat each other with a little more kindness.

I've been traveling around the country meeting my newfound cousins. One is actor Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry Potter in the movies. I told him he's related to Albert Einstein, but also serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

DANIEL RADCLIFFE: I suppose you got to take the rough with the smooth, haven't you? But I think there is some incredibly powerful about the idea that Einstein and Jeffrey Dahmer are related. There's something kind of inescapable about the fact that we're all related.

JACOBS: With so many relatives, I'm thinking maybe I should throw party? So that's what I'm doing. Next summer in New York, I'm holding the global family reunion and you are invited. The idea is to break the world record for the biggest family gathering, currently at 4,514. If you're human, you can attend. Just go to the website globalfamilyreunion.com, and next June, you'll cram into the world's largest family photo with several thousand of your closest relatives.

A few weeks ago, I flew to Houston to invite my distant cousin by marriage, George H. W. Bush to the reunion. I told him and his wife that their son was not the only relative he had in the White House.

JACOBS: The president is the eighth cousin once removed of William Jefferson Clinton. Did you know about that?

GEORGE H.W. BUSH: I did not know that. Did you, Bar?

BARBARA BUSH: No, but I think he is our son by another mother, so...

JACOBS: I've also invited those closer to home. Turns out my wife is my cousin too - distant, but still.

How do you feel about being my cousin?

JULIE SCHOENBERG: Well, I think it's a little weird, but it does prove your point that we're all related.

JACOBS: And now you'll come to the big family reunion?

J. SCHOENBERG: Well, I actually was already coming.

JACOBS: The reunion will be a fundraiser for Alzheimer's. And admittedly, it could evolve into a thousand family feuds. But I hope not. I'm optimistic we'll all bond over barbecue and genealogy.

I found one other cousin who I'm going to make come to the reunion whether he likes it or not. He's a radio host related to me through the Glickman's (ph) - just 29 degrees away.

So cousin Scott, you'll bring brisket for 5,000?

SIMON: I wouldn't miss it. You bring the, sauce, A.J. A.J. Jacobs of Esquire Magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE FAMILY")

SISTER SLEDGE: (Singing) We are family, I've got all my sisters with me. We are family, get up everybody and sing. Sing it to me. We are family, I got all my sisters with me. We are family get up everybody and sing.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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