By A.J. Jacobs
I’d always wanted a big family. A few years ago, I got a huge one. After receiving my results back from 23andMe, I discovered I had more than a thousand genetic cousins in their database.
This prompted the question: What could I do with all these new relatives? My answer: Maybe it’d be interesting to meet my whole family. Throw a party for them.
So that’s exactly what I’m doing: Next summer, I’m hosting what I hope will be the largest, most inclusive and most entertaining family reunion, ever.
There will be talks from scientists and entertainers about every aspect of the family, including DNA, genealogy and personal stories. There will be music, comedy, games, exhibits, food — and the world’s largest family photo. And there’s a good chance you’re one of the cousins on my invitation list.
To back up: I’m an editor at Esquire magazine and author of several books. My books usually involve projects that overwhelm my life and test the patience of my lovely wife. I wrote a book called The Year of Living Biblically where I tried to follow all of the rules of the Bible, from the 10 commandments to growing a ridiculously bushy beard. I wrote another where I tried to become as healthy as possible by following all the medical advice in the world (results varied).
I’d always been interested in family history. My father was an amateur genealogist, and, when I was a kid, he traced our line back to the 17th century, thanks to the records kept about our ancestor, a famous rabbi named the Vilna Gaon.
I got hooked again as an adult after I got my 23andMe results, as well as another thought-provoking email. That email was from a man who claimed to have a family tree with 80,000 people on it, including me, his 12th cousin. At first, I didn’t believe him. I thought he was going to ask me to wire him $10,000 to a Nigerian bank account.
But it turns out it’s for real. He’s part of a new breed of genealogists who are creating monster mega family trees. These trees are built using both DNA test results combined with a crowdsourced collaborative Wikipedia-like model of family history. You have thousands of people working on the same tree all over the world using websites such as Geni, WikiTree and FamilySearch.
Right now, the biggest family tree on the Internet — and one I happen to be part of — is mind-bogglingly huge. It’s got 79 million people in 160 countries. This tree has every U.S. president. It has everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Albert Einstein. The links are often lengthy and sometimes through marriage, but it’s fun to figure them out. (Abraham Lincoln is my aunt’s first cousin 8 times removed’s wife’s second great nephew!)
And that’s when I decided to see if we could gather all these relatives together, at least the living ones. I want to remind people that we are, in fact, one big family; that we do share 99.9 percent of our DNA, and that we need to treat each other with a little more kindness.
The event will be on the grounds of the World’s Fair in New York on June 6, 2015. It will be a fundraiser for Alzheimer’s (I chose Alzheimer’s because 60 million members of our human family suffer from it). It will be the subject of a documentary by Morgan Spurlock, the man who did Supersize Me. And it will cost $20 or less.
The good folks at 23andMe will be participating. (In fact, 23andMe lists me as genetic cousins with the company’s co-founder Anne Wojcicki and public relations director Catherine Afarian).
A Global Family Tree isn’t just a neat parlor trick — it’s got important repercussions. In a few years, we will likely have almost all seven billion members of the human family on a single tree. This will have huge scientific benefits. In fact, there’s a team of scientists at MIT studying the tree right now to see how traits and diseases are passed down. It’s also the best learning tool I’ve ever come across. When my kids realize they’re cousins with Albert Einstein, they want to know about him. It enmeshes us in history.
I’ve reached out to some of my cousins on 23andMe already to tell them about the Global Family Reunion. Admittedly, there have been some skeptics. “Is this a scam?” wrote a fifth cousin.
But I’ve also received tons of some enthusiastic RSVP’s. At one point, I sent an email to a cousin whose name was hidden only to discover he was a friend of mine from college.
If you can’t make it to New York, there will be branch parties around the world. Go to GlobalFamilyReunion.com to find out more. And, for 23andMe customers, please share your ancestry data with me on 23andMe. I want you in the family.
A.J. Jacobs is an editor at large at Esquire magazine, a commentator on NPR and columnist for Mental Floss magazine. The author of several books, including “Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection,” AJ is currently helping to build a family tree of the entire world and holding the biggest family reunion ever in 2015.