New Yorker A.J. Jacobs is back on bookshelves with his latest self-experimental book.
“It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree” (out Nov. 7, $27, Simon & Schuster) is Jacobs’ 350-page quest to discover how all human beings are related (Spoiler: We’re all distant cousins).
The journalist and author of The New York Times bestsellers “The Year of Living Biblically,” “The Know-It-All,” “Drop Dead Healthy” and “My Life as an Experiment” explores the “ultimate social network” by tracking back to the O.G. Adam and Eve, researching people who married their first cousins, meeting his distant celeb cousins (including Ricky Gervais, Mark Wahlberg and Melissa McCarthy), and eventually attempting to organize the biggest family reunion in recorded history; the Global Family Reunion, held June 2015 in Queens, was attended by more than 3,000 people.
amNewYork spoke with Jacobs, 49, about his fascination with genealogy and how being relatives with your enemies may just make the world a better place.
What made you want to write this book?
I got an email out of the blue from a guy who said that he was my eighth cousin, and of course I thought he was asking me to wire him $10,000 to his bank account in Nigeria. But it turned out he was actually my eighth cousin. [This] led me to discover this huge network of researchers and scientists who are building a family tree of the entire human race: It’s an unprecedented social network. It’s like sending people to Mars. I wanted in.
What surprised you most during your research?
The whole topic of family is full of surprises. We are all related to each other, and now we can actually figure it out. The world has become one big game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. There are several services to find out how you’re related. Barack Obama is officially my fifth great aunt’s husband’s brother’s wife’s seventh great nephew. But it’s a double-edged sword: I’m also related to Donald Trump.
It has these tremendous real-world implications. There are studies that show that when people think that they are related — like Palestinians and Israelis — they treat each other more kindly.
Did researching and writing “It’s All Relative” redefine what the word “family” means to you personally?
Family has changed more these last 10 years than it has in centuries. You’ve got all sorts of new configurations: Open adoption, group families, DNA from three people in one baby. It’s quite amazing to see how it’s changing. I think it’s for the better. As my cousin Hillary Clinton said, “It takes a village.” The more people in your extended family, the better. I like the changes: I think they’re good for the world, but it’s going to freak some people out.
Do you think New Yorkers — who live in closer proximity to each other than most other Americans — will approach this book uniquely?
I have found that New Yorkers have a reputation for being standoffish and aloof, but I have found that [being related] is a very effective way to approach people. Say, “Hey, this sounds weird, but you know what, you’re my cousin and here’s how.”
What do you want readers to take away from reading your book?
I would love it if it expands the definition of family. I would love if people were just a tiny bit kinder. I’ve seen this myself and I call it the “Judge Judy effect,” because I always hated Judge Judy — I found her obnoxious and loud. But then I found out she’s like my seventh cousin and it changed my perspective. I was like, you know what, she’s not so bad, that’s just my cousin Judy doing a little shtick and underneath she’s a sweet person. Hopefully the Judge Judy effect will take over the world.