Magazine

Redefining family: Author Jacobs discusses book at local library


We’ve arrived at an intersection. In recent years, the genetic revolution and the information revolution have crossed paths. Divisive politics and globalization serve as two of many traffic signals, controlling the ebb and flow of the people and technologies moving through these roads.

A.J. Jacobs, an author who spoke at the Los Altos main library Jan. 25 as a part of the Silicon Valley Reads program, found himself standing at this intersection when he received an email from his eighth cousin.

"He explains that he’s a dairy farmer on a kibbutz in Israel and has read some articles I’ve written," Jacobs recalled in the first chapter of his book "It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree" (Simon & Schuster, 2017). "For the previous 15 years, (he) has devoted his time to building a family tree. A really big tree. More of a forest."

The fateful email caused Jacobs to plummet into the world of genealogy, the study and tracing of lines of descent or development. Amid the rise of companies such as Geni and 23andMe, he learned that every human is descended from "Y-Chromosomal Adam" and "Mitochondrial Eve." Thus, everyone is everyone’s cousin.

So he decided to organize the world’s largest family reunion, inviting all 7.5 billion people on Earth. He brought together 3,700 people in New York, with 40 simultaneous parties around the world.

On this ambitious adventure, he discovered the importance of storytelling and connection. He urges us to redefine the idea of family for ourselves.

Biological versus logical

Jacobs’ favorite part of the process was listening to individual experiences. For instance, he was fascinated by the conversation he had with a man who had nine siblings. After the father’s death, a DNA test revealed that he and his siblings had eight fathers.

"Even though he wasn’t the biological father of any of these kids, and he knew it, he was still committed," Jacobs said. "To me, that speaks to a very important part of family nowadays. … Family is so much broader. … You have a biological family and also a logical family - and I love that."

Additionally, he talked to twins who reunited after being separated at birth. He met members of the Hatfield and McCoy families, who were part of America’s infamous family feud. He even reached out to famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to learn his perspective.

In an email, Tyson explained that he simply doesn’t care. Because everyone shares a common ancestor, the line between family and heritage is nebulous. He doesn’t care whether he’s a descendant of a famous person, but rather he’s inspired by the entire human race.

"First of all, I had to pay him $200 to print his email, which I hope he gave to charity," Jacobs joked. "But secondly, in one way, I agree with him. … We should try to think of the entire human race as one big family because we’re facing crises like climate change, and we can’t afford to have this tribalism, this us-versus-them mentality."

But Jacobs argues that understanding one’s origins is a human instinct, which explains people’s increased willingness to do cheek swabs and learn about their health, ancestry, family and relationships.

Perhaps they find out they’re a small percentage Jewish and are more willing to defend a stranger against an anti-Semitic comment. Perhaps they’ll be empowered to reach out to their eighth cousin. Or perhaps, they’ll cultivate a passion for seeking out the stories of their past.

"(My son) thanked his grandma for a gift, and then said (he’d) also like to thank great-grandma and great-grandpa for having (his grandma) and their parents for having them," Jacobs said. "I love that he latched on to this idea that ... we wouldn’t be here without the thousands of people who came before us."

When Jacobs took his family to Ellis Island, his sons empathized with their great-grandmother, who spent an extra night at the boarding quarters upon arrival because her husband was eating soup and missed his train to New York.

Jacobs explained to his sons that texting didn’t exist then, so their great-grandmother’s experience must’ve been like getting lost at Disneyland, only 1,000 times worse.

"I think the way to do it is to tell (children) stories that they can relate to but that show how different it was and the sacrifices their ancestors made to get here," Jacobs said.

Family as defense mechanism

However, this concept of family leads to a predicament: Family can be an irrational defense mechanism.

Jacobs cited Lisa Miller’s New York Magazine article, "Ethical Parenting," where she presents a hypothetical dilemma. Should parents send their child to school to take a standardized exam the next day, even though their child has lice? Additionally, Jacobs discussed John Oliver’s argument - a person shouldn’t need to visualize a relative in a terrible situation to make it a terrible situation.

The inevitable reality is that we have a built-in bias toward our immediate family. But if everyone is everyone’s cousin and we expand the definition of family with the help of scientific evidence from the roads of the information and DNA revolutions, we can use this bias for good.

"So we have to work with the way we’re wired," Jacobs said. "I’m always going to care more about my kids than anyone else, but … compassion is not a scarce resource. Other people in my city and in my country and the world can get a little of that familial glow."

Maybe this intersection is the perfect place to strike up a conversation with an unfamiliar person waiting for the walk signal as well, to learn his or her story and to realize that we are truly more similar than we are different. ◆

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