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TEDActive 2014

AJ Jacobs: The world's largest family reunion ... we're all invited!

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Views 1,113,982

You may not know it yet, but AJ Jacobs is probably your cousin (many, many times removed). Using genealogy websites, he's been following the unexpected links that make us all, however distantly, related. His goal: to throw the world's largest family reunion. See you there?

- Author
Immersing himself in alternate lifestyles and long, hilarious experiments (usually with himself the guinea pig), writer AJ Jacobs tests the limits of behavior, customs, culture, knowledge -- and his wife's sense of humor. Full bio

Six months ago, I got an email
00:12
from a man in Israel
00:14
who had read one of my books,
00:16
and the email said,
00:17
"You don't know me,
00:18
but I'm your 12th cousin."
00:20
And it said, "I have a family tree
00:23
with 80,000 people on it, including you,
00:25
Karl Marx,
00:29
and several European aristocrats."
00:30
Now I did not know what to make of this.
00:33
Part of me was like, okay,
00:35
when's he going to ask me to wire
00:38
10,000 dollars to his Nigerian bank, right?
00:40
I also thought, 80,000 relatives,
00:43
do I want that?
00:47
I have enough trouble with some of the ones
00:48
I have already.
00:50
And I won't name names, but you know who you are.
00:52
But another part of me said, this is remarkable.
00:55
Here I am alone in my office, but I'm not alone at all.
00:59
I'm connected to 80,000 people around the world,
01:01
and that's four Madison Square Gardens
01:05
full of cousins.
01:08
And some of them are going to be great,
01:10
and some of them are going to be irritating,
01:13
but they're all related to me.
01:15
So this email inspired me to dive into genealogy,
01:18
which I always thought was
a very staid and proper field,
01:22
but it turns out it's going through a fascinating
01:25
revolution, and a controversial one.
01:28
Partly, this is because of DNA and genetic testing,
01:31
but partly, it's because of the Internet.
01:34
There are sites that now take
01:38
the Wikipedia approach to family trees,
01:40
collaboration and crowdsourcing,
01:43
and what you do is,
01:46
you load your family tree on,
01:47
and then these sites search
01:50
to see if the A.J. Jacobs in your tree
01:51
is the same as the A.J. Jacobs in another tree,
01:54
and if it is, then you can combine,
01:56
and then you combine and combine and combine
02:00
until you get these massive,
02:02
mega-family trees
02:03
with thousands of people on them,
02:05
or even millions.
02:08
I'm on something on Geni called
02:09
the world family tree,
02:12
which has no less than a jaw-dropping
02:13
75 million people.
02:16
So that's 75 million people connected by blood
02:20
or marriage, sometimes both.
02:23
(Laughter)
02:26
It's in all seven continents, including Antarctica.
02:28
I'm on it. Many of you are on it,
02:33
whether you know it or not,
02:35
and you can see the links.
02:37
Here's my cousin Gwyneth Paltrow.
02:39
She has no idea I exist,
02:44
but we are officially cousins.
02:46
We have just 17 links between us.
02:48
And there's my cousin Barack Obama.
02:52
(Laughter)
02:55
And he is my aunt's fifth great-aunt's husband's
02:56
father's wife's seventh great-nephew,
03:00
so practically my old brother.
03:04
And my cousin, of course,
03:09
the actor Kevin Bacon --
03:10
(Laughter) —
03:11
who is my first cousin's twice removed's
03:13
wife's niece's husband's first cousin once removed's
03:16
niece's husband.
03:18
So six degrees of Kevin Bacon,
03:20
plus or minus several degrees.
03:22
Now, I'm not boasting, because all of you
03:26
have famous people and historical figures
03:28
in your tree, because we are all connected,
03:31
and 75 million may seem like a lot,
03:34
but in a few years, it's quite likely
03:37
we will have a family tree
03:40
with all, almost all, seven billion people on Earth.
03:42
But does it really matter?
03:46
What's the importance?
03:48
And I do think it is important,
03:49
and I'll give you five reasons why, really quickly.
03:51
First, it's got scientific value.
03:54
This is an unprecedented history of the human race,
03:56
and it's giving us valuable data
04:00
about how diseases are inherited,
04:03
how people migrate,
04:06
and there's a team of scientists at MIT right now
04:07
studying the world family tree.
04:10
Number two, it brings history alive.
04:13
I found out I'm connected to Albert Einstein,
04:16
so I told my seven-year-old son that,
04:19
and he was totally engaged.
04:22
Now Albert Einstein is not some dead white guy
04:24
with weird hair.
04:28
He's Uncle Albert. (Laughter)
04:29
And my son wanted to know,
04:33
"What did he say? What is E = MC squared?"
04:35
Also, it's not all good news.
04:37
I found a link to Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer,
04:39
but I will say that's on my wife's side.
04:43
(Laughter) (Applause)
04:45
So I want to make that clear. Sorry, honey.
04:48
Number three, interconnectedness.
04:51
We all come from the same ancestor,
04:54
and you don't have to believe
the literal Bible version,
04:57
but scientists talk about Y chromosomal Adam
05:00
and mitochondrial Eve,
05:04
and these were about 100,000 to 300,000 years ago.
05:07
We all have a bit of their DNA in us.
05:10
They are our great-great-great-great-great-great --
05:13
continue that for about 7,000 times --
05:16
grandparents,
05:18
and so that means we literally all are
05:20
biological cousins as well,
05:23
and estimates vary, but probably
05:25
the farthest cousin you have on Earth
05:28
is about a 50th cousin.
05:30
Now, it's not just ancestors we share, descendants.
05:33
If you have kids, and they have kids,
05:37
look how quickly the descendants accumulate.
05:40
So in 10, 12 generations,
05:43
you're going to have thousands of offspring,
05:45
and millions of offspring.
05:47
Number four, a kinder world.
05:48
Now, I know that there are family feuds.
05:50
I have three sons, so I see how they fight.
05:53
But I think that there's also a human bias
05:55
to treat your family a little better than strangers.
05:58
I think this tree is going to be bad news for bigots,
06:00
because they're going to have to realize
06:04
that they are cousins with thousands of people
06:08
in whatever ethnic group they happen
06:11
to have issues with,
06:13
and I think you look back at history,
06:15
and a lot of the terrible things
we've done to each other
06:17
is because one group thinks
another group is sub-human,
06:20
and you can't do that anymore.
06:23
We're not just part of the same species.
06:25
We're part of the same family.
06:26
We share 99.9 percent of our DNA.
06:28
Now the final one is number five,
06:31
a democratizing effect.
06:34
Some genealogy has an elitist strain,
06:35
like people say, "Oh, I'm descended
06:39
from Mary Queen of Scots
06:41
and you're not, so you cannot join my country club."
06:42
But that's really going to be hard to do now,
06:45
because everyone is related.
06:48
I'm descended from Mary Queen of Scots --
06:50
by marriage, but still.
06:52
So it's really a fascinating time
06:56
in the history of family,
06:59
because it's changing so fast.
07:01
There is gay marriage and sperm donors
07:04
and there's intermarriage
on an unprecedented scale,
07:07
and this makes some of my
more conservative cousins
07:12
a little nervous,
07:14
but I actually think it's a good thing.
07:16
I think the more inclusive the idea of family is,
07:17
the better,
07:21
because then you have more potential caretakers,
07:22
and as my aunt's eighth cousin twice removed
07:24
Hillary Clinton says --
07:29
(Laughter) —
07:31
it takes a village.
07:32
So I have all these hundreds and thousands,
07:34
millions of new cousins.
07:39
I thought, what can I do with this information?
07:40
And that's when I decided,
07:43
why not throw a party?
07:45
So that's what I'm doing.
07:47
And you're all invited.
07:49
Next year, next summer,
07:52
I will be hosting what I hope is
07:54
the biggest and best family reunion in history.
07:56
(Applause)
08:00
Thank you. I want you there.
08:01
I want you there.
08:04
It's going to be at the New York Hall of Science,
08:05
which is a great venue,
08:07
but it's also on the site of the former World's Fair,
08:09
which is, I think, very appropriate,
08:13
because I see this as a family reunion
08:17
meets a world's fair.
08:19
There's going to be exhibits and food, music.
08:20
Paul McCartney is 11 steps away,
08:23
so I'm hoping he brings his guitar.
08:26
He hasn't RSVP'd yet, but fingers crossed.
08:29
And there is going to be a day of speakers,
08:32
of fascinating cousins.
08:34
It's early, but I've already,
08:36
I've got some lined up.
08:38
Cass Sunstein, my cousin who is perhaps
08:40
the most brilliant legal scholar, will be talking.
08:42
He was a former member
of the Obama administration.
08:45
And on the other side of the political spectrum,
08:48
George H.W. Bush, number 41, the father,
08:51
he has agreed to participate,
08:54
and Nick Kroll, the comedian,
08:56
and Dr. Oz, and many more to come.
08:58
And, of course, the most important is that you,
09:02
I want you guys there,
09:06
and I invite you to go to GlobalFamilyReunion.org
09:08
and figure out how you're on the family tree,
09:11
because these are big issues, family and tribe,
09:14
and I don't know all the answers,
09:19
but I have a lot of smart relatives,
09:21
including you guys,
09:24
so together, I think we can figure it out.
09:26
Only together can we solve these big problems.
09:29
So from cousin to cousin,
09:32
I thank you. I can't wait to see you.
09:34
Goodbye.
09:36
(Applause)
09:38

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About the speaker:

AJ Jacobs - Author
Immersing himself in alternate lifestyles and long, hilarious experiments (usually with himself the guinea pig), writer AJ Jacobs tests the limits of behavior, customs, culture, knowledge -- and his wife's sense of humor.

Why you should listen

AJ Jacobs' writings stand at the intersection of philosophy, Gonzo journalism and performance art. Stubbornly curious and slyly perceptive, he takes immersive learning to its irrational and profoundly amusing extreme -- extracting wisdom and meaning after long stints as a self-styled guinea pig. For his widely circulated Esquire article "My Outsourced Life," he explored the phenomenon of outsourcing by hiring a team in Bangalore to take care of every part of his life -- from reading his emails to arguing with his wife to reading bedtime stories to his own son. A previous article, "I Think You're Fat," chronicled a brief, cringe-inducing attempt to live his life in Radical Honesty, telling all the truth, all the time.

Jacobs is author of The Know-It-All, which documents the year he spent reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z, uncovering both funny and surprising factoids but also poignant insight into history and human nature. In 2007 he released The Year of Living Biblically, in which he attempted to follow every single rule in the Bible as literally as possible for an entire year. His recent book The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment is a collection of numerous personal experiments. including living according to George Washington's rules of conduct, outsourcing every single task to India, and posing as a woman on an online dating site. 

More profile about the speaker
AJ Jacobs | Speaker | TED.com