The Cousinhood of Humanity

by fpman

So apparently it is very popular these days to be looking for one’s distant cousins, and a pioneer of this is popular author A. J. Jacobs.

In this case, by “cousin” one does not mean people whom one would really think of as relatives in the sense of being closely related.

In its more distant sense, A.J. Jacobs is “cousins” with Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael Bloomberg and others, among 75 million cousins of his that he managed to identify so far. In fact, they may be “n-degree cousins x times removed” – where n may be a fairly large number and x may be zero or larger, to be scientifically accurate.

This is possible given how there really were not that many ancestors in previous generations to provide every living person today with their very own neat blood lineage. Instead, we all carry mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosomes from a rather narrow group and thus share in our DNA heritage. Our most recent common ancestors (who are descendents of earlier common ancestors of course) can thus be found through both matrilineal and patrilinial descent. “Mitochondrial Eve” and “Y-chromosomal Adam,” respectively. Given the science of this, Eve might have lived a mere 2,000 years ago (if we assume enough blending of teh peoplez since the beginning of comprehensive globalization) whereas Adam roamed the wilderness about 60,000 to 90,000 years ago.

From the point of view of politics, it may seem interesting to reflect on how Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Dutch far right politician Geert Wilders and Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or, say, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange may be distantly related. Not only with each other but with each and every one of those listed.

Having said that, one remembers how British King George V, German Kaiser Wilhelm II and Russian Tsar Nicholas II were actually cousins and yet it still didn’t work out all that well between them.

They were related through George V who was first cousins with both (as cross cousins, i.e. as the offspring of opposite-sex children of shared grandparents).

Wilhelm and Nicholas were thus not first cousins (sharing grandparents) but were only third cousins in fact, sharing great-great-grandparents in the Romanov family (though at the same time Nicholas was also second cousin once removed from Wilhelm’s point of view, through their shared ancestors in the Hohenzollern family).

The image below, via the Brookings Institute, is worth having a look to develop an understanding of these nuances.

Cousins_WWI_Wilhelm_Nicholas_George

Given such a prominent instance of intra-family feduing as World War One it is hard to argue with A. J. Jacobs’ pessimistic assessment when he says:

“I don’t think KKK members will be singing Kumbaya with African Americans.”

And unlike Jacobs, we do not even expect, as a result of his considerable efforts at finding cousins, a significant decrease in what he refers to as the “elitism” of those proud of their descent. People who were simple-minded enough to think that being born into a family or where and when they were born constituted a merit of theirs can’t, shan’t, and won’t change their minds about this.

The Cousinhood of Humanity will likely remain a utopian idea – beyond being scientific fact of course.

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