Q&A with A.J. Jacobs

The author of four New York Times bestsellers and a self-described human guinea pig discusses producing the Global Family Reunion last June and his upcoming book on DNA and family history.

By Lena Huang featured image Photograph by Stephanie Diani

What inspired you to host the Global Family Reunion?
A couple of years ago, I got an email from a man who said he was my 12th cousin. At first, I thought it was a scam. But it turned out he’s part of a group of researchers and scientists trying to connect the world in a single family tree. They’re using both DNA and massive Wikipedia-like online databases. I was blown away by the scope of the idea. One big family! I thought — why not throw a party for all of my millions of cousins?

How did it go?
Honestly, I was miserable during the festival, because I was stressed out about all the details. But thankfully, others say they had a good time. We had 3,700 cousins in New York, along with 58 speakers and more than 100 ancestry-related activities. We also had 41 simultaneous reunions all around the world, from Mexico to New Zealand to Michigan.

What were some highlights of the reunion?
The speakers were fantastic. We had George Church from Harvard talking about DNA. We had Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and geneticist CeCe Moore. But we also had a lot of cousins with weird talents sharing their skills, including Frisbee lessons from a pro, a trivia quiz by Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings, and card tricks by David Blaine. Oh, and at 4:00 p.m., we had Sister Sledge live onstage, singing “We Are Family” with thousands of our cousins. I thought it was only appropriate.

Why is it important for people to be connected through genealogy?
I think for two reasons. First, for science. For instance, Yaniv Erlich of Columbia University is doing a fascinating study of online megatrees and DNA to figure out what influences human longevity. Second, for ethics. The notion of one big family is a powerful reminder that we share 99.9 percent of our DNA. We’re all cousins, regardless of race, creed, or color. It’s not going to eradicate racism or war — but it might help just a bit.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of the event?
I’m hopeful that people had a blast. And also, that they absorbed the theme, which Henry Louis Gates, Jr., put so well in his keynote address at the event: “In spite of all of our apparent differences. Differences in phenotype, skin color, hair texture, nose structure, geographical origin, religion. Despite all those differences, we are fundamentally related. We are all descended from common ancestors. We are all in fact cousins.”

Can people participate now?
Yes, please! If you go to GlobalFamilyReunion.com and sign up for the mailing list, I’ll keep you in the loop about future reunions, how to become part of the Global Family, and new advances in ancestry-related DNA testing.

Will you host more reunions in the future?
I won’t be hosting one in 2016 because I am writing my book. But I’m planning on throwing one again in 2017. As I mentioned, the first Global Family Reunion had 41 parties around the world. Next time, I’m hoping for 100 simultaneous parties. And maybe one on the International Space Station: an interplanetary reunion.

Tell us about your upcoming book that’s due to publish in fall 2016.
The book is tentatively called It’s All Relative, and it will be about the revolution in DNA and family history. There will be chapters on mitochondrial Eve, cousin marriage, black sheep, and more. I’m considering thanking every member of my extended family by name and have the acknowledgments go for 1,000 pages.

Do you think we are related?
You and me? Absolutely. Probably in 100 ways, both genetically and through marriage. Here’s one link I found, through your brother-in-law: He is my first cousin thrice removed wife’s aunt’s husband’s wife’s third cousin once removed husband’s father’s wife’s second great nephew’s wife! Glad we connected, cousin.