Family for Thought?

Family Tree detail - Family for Thought?
A detail of a tree from the Sociedad Heraldica.

A recent article in The New York Times asked “Are You My Cousin?” The article describes the writer’s journey into discovering his family tree through the new world of genealogy software. For those of you who haven’t seen any of the commercials, there are several programs widely available to help you find all the relatives and ancestors you could ever want (or not want) to find.

And the results are often surprising. Many people discover they are distant cousins of famous people. Perhaps tenth and eleventh cousins by marriage but cousins nonetheless. A new claim to fame to know that this famous person is part of the family tree. Or maybe the person you are now connected with was infamous—a traitor or pirate or dictator. Thanksgiving dinner discussions have now become 100 times more interesting. The article’s author, A. N. Jacobs, found that he was now related to Gwyneth Paltrow, 17 steps removed and Quincy Jones, 22 steps removed. What are the rules of etiquette on inviting them to family reunions? How many steps removed is the limit?

Jacobs describes the software program Geni, which allows you to upload your family tree and connect with other family trees across seven continents. Jacobs says that at most recent count, his family size was up to around 75 million members. Perhaps, we are his cousins as well.

As a child, I remember my mother helping me with a family tree project. We drew it on a large white sheet of oaktag with four large trees. At the base of each were my great grandparents. We found most of their siblings and children and children’s children through the four generations to my brothers, my first cousins, and me. More recently, a cousin on the same side of the family has taken to tracing back my maternal grandfather’s line. At last glance, the printout went back to the 18th century, but nowhere near 75 million family members.

I do find the whole idea of family trees fascinating. I want to know where I came from, what my ancestors’ lives were like, what they experienced. I may have to settle for knowing who they were and where they lived, and extrapolating based on the history and culture of the time and place. It gives me a sense of place in the world and a sense of history and connectedness.

This connectedness is really the key point. Does having 75 million family members we don’t know give us connectedness? Perhaps not personally, but would it change our behavior if we knew that every action we took was not just impacting others but others in our family? In our real blood family? Would senators filibuster a $10.10 minimum wage bill if they knew they were preventing their actual family members from being able to eat as opposed to strangers they believed to be moochers. Of course, we all know people who believe that they have family members they don’t like and might think are moochers or worse. But deep down, would the belief that we are family—the technological extension of Being-in-the-World—change the way we treat other people? My sense is that it would, maybe subtly at first, but it could grow into a real brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind. And even though siblings squabble, how many stronger bonds are there?

Welcome to my family!

— Sarah Kass

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