Hello, Cousin Judy: One Question for AJ Jacobs

By Jennifer Bleyer, published November 2, 2017 - last reviewed on April 17, 2018

A few years ago, writer A.J. Jacobs set out to explore his genealogy. He not only found out about 108 million relatives he didn't know he had, he also learned of the many possibilities of ancestral mapping and genetic technology. Jacobs recounts his discoveries in a new book, It's All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World's Family Tree

How did delving into your genealogy affect how you see people, besides making you realize that you may need a bigger table for thanksgiving dinner?

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

My nature is a little bit misanthropic. I'm more Larry David than Tom Hanks. But now when I get annoyed at someone, I make a conscious effort to remind myself—you know what, that guy who just cut me off in line at the drugstore probably shares a 20th great-grandfather with me. And shouldn't I have a little respect for my 20th great-grandfather? Shouldn't I forgive my cousin? If my ancestor were here, he'd say, "Hug it out, kids."

That feeling is something I've come to call the Judge Judy Effect. I'd always hated Judge Judy. I found her so obnoxious and shouty. Then while doing research, I found out that she's my eighth cousin twice removed, and weirdly, my perspective shifted. Suddenly I was like, she's not so bad! She's Cousin Judy! She's doing her shtick and is probably quite nice!

Human beings tend to treat their relatives—even distant relatives—with more kindness than strangers. It's innate. We want to help those with similar DNA. I think if we take that bias and remind people how closely related they actually are—and by some estimates, we are all 50th cousins or closer—maybe they will be more compassionate. Or at least less shouty.  

I'm quite confident that within a decade or two, we will have mapped a family tree of the entire human race and we'll be able to see the connections between everyone. It will be like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but everyone is Kevin Bacon. You'll walk into a bar wearing your Google contact lenses and do facial recognition on a stranger's face and say, hey, you're my sixth cousin! It's creepy and fascinating, and hopefully it will be good. Fingers crossed, there will be fewer bar fights.