A.J. Jacobs: All humans are cousins and genealogy has changed the way we connect We often resolve to spend time with family. A.J. Jacobs may have found one solution: treat everyone like family. He says genealogy platforms have linked him to family trees with millions of cousins.

Want to spend more time with family? Expand your definition of ... family

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OK. We are coming to the end of our show. And the final thing that many of us resolve to do each year is to be more in touch with our family. Writer A.J. Jacobs has a very excellent, unusual and entertaining take on how we can do that by reconsidering just who even is part of our family. Here he is on the TED stage in 2014.


A J JACOBS: Six months ago, I got an email from a man in Israel who had read one of my books. And the email said, you don't know me, but I'm your 12th cousin. And it said, I have a family tree with 80,000 people on it, including you, Karl Marx and several European aristocrats. Now, I did not know what to make of this. Part of me was like, OK, when's he going to ask me to wire $10,000 to his bank, right?


JACOBS: I also thought, 80,000 relatives. Do I want that? I have enough trouble with some of the ones I have already. But another part of me said, this is remarkable. Here I am, alone in my office, but I'm not alone at all. I'm connected to 80,000 people around the world. And that's four Madison Square Gardens full of cousins.

So this email inspired me to dive into genealogy, which I always thought was a very staid and proper field. But it turns out it's going through a fascinating revolution and a controversial one. Partly this is because of DNA and genetic testing, but partly it's because of the internet. There are sites that now take the Wikipedia approach to family trees. And what you do is you load your family tree on, and then these sites search to see if the A.J. Jacobs in your tree is the same as the A.J. Jacobs in another tree. And if it is, then you can combine until you get these massive mega family trees with thousands of people on them or even millions. I'm on something on Geni called the world family tree, which has no less than a jaw-dropping 75 million people. I'm on it. Many of you are on it, whether you know it or not. And you can see the links. Here's my cousin, Gwyneth Paltrow, who...


JACOBS: She has no idea I exist, but we are officially cousins. We have just 17 links between us. There's my cousin, Barack Obama.


JACOBS: And he is my aunt's fifth great aunt's husband's father's wife's seventh great nephew.


JACOBS: So practically my older brother. And my cousin, of course, the actor Kevin Bacon...


JACOBS: ...Who is my first cousin twice removed's wife's niece's husband's first cousin once removed's niece's husband - so six degrees of Kevin Bacon, plus or minus several degrees.


JACOBS: Now, I'm not boasting because all of you have famous people and historical figures in your tree because we are all connected. But does it really matter? You know, what's the importance? First, it's got scientific value. This is an unprecedented history of the human race, and it's giving us valuable data about how diseases are inherited, how people migrate. And there's a team of scientists at MIT right now studying the world family tree. No. 2, it brings history alive. I found out I'm connected to Albert Einstein. So I told my 7-year-old son that, and he was totally engaged. Now Albert Einstein is not some dead white guy with weird hair. He's Uncle Albert. And, like...


JACOBS: It's not all good news. I found a link to Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer. But I will say that's on my wife's side. So...


JACOBS: I want to make that clear. Sorry, honey. No. 3, interconnectedness - we all come from the same ancestor. And you don't have to believe the literal Bible version, but scientists talk about Y chromosomal Adam and mitochondrial Eve. And these were about 100,000 to 300,000 years ago. We all have a bit of their DNA in us. No. 4, a kinder world - now, I know that there are family feuds, but I think that there's also a human bias to treat your family a little better than strangers. I think you look back at history, and a lot of the terrible things we've done to each other is because one group thinks another group is subhuman. And you can't do that anymore. We're not just part of the same species. We're part of the same family. The more inclusive the idea of family is, the better because then you have more potential caretakers. And as my aunt's eighth cousin twice removed Hillary Clinton says...


JACOBS: ...It takes a village. So, cousin to cousin, I thank you. Goodbye.


ZOMORODI: (Laughter) OK, A.J. I'm resolved to be friendlier to my neighbors because technically they are also my family. That was writer A.J. Jacobs. You can find all his talks at ted.com. And thank you so much for listening to our show about new reasons to stick to your New Year's resolutions. And I wish you all kinds of luck in addition to scientific research and fun facts about staying resolved this year. But if you do need more support in your endeavor, NPR's Life Kit team has a great resource. Go to npr.org/newyears. It is really delightful.

This episode was produced by James Delahoussaye, Matthew Cloutier and Fiona Geiran. It was edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour, James Delahoussaye and me. Our production staff at NPR also includes Andrea Gutierrez, Rachel Faulkner White, Katie Monteleone and Katherine Sypher. Our intern is Susannah Broun, and our fellow is Malvika Dang. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our audio engineers for this episode were Robert Rodriguez and Gilly Moon. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint, Jimmy Gutierrez and Daniella Balarezo. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you have been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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