Annoying the White Supremacists

An Interview with AJ Jacobs about the Global Family Tree

/ by Noah Charney

There are very few writers for whom I will gleefully read anything they’ve penned, including but not limited to books and articles. AJ Jacobs, the American humorist, is one of them. If he wrote a DVD instruction manual, I’m sure it would be both insightful and funny. The list is even shorter of writers who actually do make me laugh out loud, and he is one of them. I’ve read all of his books, and can safely say that he has established a specific book type: The lifestyle self-experimentation funny memoir. That’s a rather awkward title, but it suits. In each of his books, AJ picks a lifestyle choice, or series of linked choices, and lives them, writing about the process. In his first book, The Know-It-All, he decided to read the Encyclopedia Britannica, cover to cover. In Drop Dead Healthy, he experimented with a different health routine in each chapter, from the quantified self to the Paleo diet. In The Year of Living Biblically, shortly to be released as a TV series, he tried to follow every rule laid out in the Old Testament for a year. His latest book, It’s All Relative, is a deep exploration of genealogy, centered around an actual event he set up, the Global Family Reunion, which is now in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest family reunion ever.


AJ Jacobs (AJ): I just looked up the capital of Slovenia, and it is gorgeous! Is that where you are?


Noah Charney (NC): I live about 25 minutes north of it. But it’s equally gorgeous. The whole country is spectacular.


AJ: I was expecting a gray, communist era bloc, and it looks like Florence.


NC: Ljubljana does look more like a miniature Zurich than anything Soviet Bloc. And if you need a good place for a family holiday, I can highly recommend it. Heck, just move on over here.


AJ: I’m considering it, that would be cool. How many expats are there? Are you the only one?


NC: I may be the only game in town in terms of moderately prominent American authors. If I were living in a more popular place for expats, like Paris or Rome, I wouldn’t be the least bit exotic, but I get to do all sorts of fun stuff, because I’m an exotic fish in these here waters…


AJ: Got a nice niche there.


NC: I think I’ve read every one of your books. The complete oeuvre. I think you’re one of the only authors for whom I’ve read, well, everything. If you catch on to a good thing, why not follow it through?


AJ: That is so nice, and I’m a fan of yours, too.


NC: I remember when you were organizing the world’s biggest family reunion. How did that turn out?


AJ: You were invited, of course. As were all Slovenians. It turned out to be the weirdest day of my life. We had about 4000 people, 4000 cousins in New York, and forty other cities around the world that were simultaneously Skyping in. About 10,000 people total. And we all sang “We Are Family” with Sister Sledge. It was a Woodstock meets a TED conference meets a family reunion. It was very odd. I was miserable the whole time, because I was worried about everything going wrong. So I had a terrible time, but other people said they had a good time. It was the strangest collection of humans that I’ve ever been a part of. I tried to make it as diverse as possible. We had a rabbi, a minster, a Buddhist monk, an atheist, 1980s sitcom stars, a Harvard biologist, a freestyle Frisbee champion. An odd collection of humans trying to show the crazy quilt of our human family.


NC: I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be the focal point of attention for so many people. Was that exciting or stressful or both?


AJ: It was both. On the one hand, it was weird to be, as you say, the center of…all roads lead to me, I am cousin number one. But the way I saw it, everyone is cousin number one. It’s like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, only in this case I played the role of the Bacon. But my point is that everyone is Kevin Bacon, everyone can be found on everyone else’s family tree.


NC: Is there an updated, more statistically-accurate number of “degrees” that separate any two people in the world?


AJ: It depends how you measure it. There are a few ways. There’s the classic “six degrees of separation.” Facebook did a study a couple of years that had it down to three degrees of separation, though this was only among Facebook users. Then there is how you are related, not just knowing someone. Most people are easily within tenth cousins of each other. You can get up to about seventieth cousins. If there’s a yam farmer in Papua New Guinea, you’re probably seventieth cousins with him. But then there are other ways, like through marriage. For instance, I’m eight degrees away from Obama. Obama is my fifth great aunt’s husband’s father’s wife’s seventh great-nephew. That one I memorized. The basic idea is that we are all connected, whether three degrees or seventeen.


NC: Part of your point is that people of different ethnicities are also related.


AJ: Oh year. Well, one of the big lessons was about how racial purity is a myth. We’re all mutts, with a little bit of DNA from all sorts. This is causing some consternation among white supremacists, who take these DNA tests and find out that they have African DNA. I just love that! It makes me so happy. Hopefully this will chip away at the crazy idea of racial purity. I’m all for the jambalaya, or whatever food analogy you might use. We share 99.5% of our DNA, as humans. Only that little 0.5% is different.


NC: Among the various companies that do DNA testing, is there one you recommend?


AJ: I will say that I took all of them, maybe half a dozen. They’re all similar, with similar results, but not all the same. It’s not 100% accurate yet. When I took one, I had 14% Scandinavian DNA. I always thought I was almost exclusively Jewish, so I was like, Alright, it gave me courage to face the winters and try cross-country skiing. Turned out this was a statistical aberration, and in other tests it was down to 2%. Now it’s down to 0.5%. Another DNA test showed that I’m mostly Jewish, but I’m 3% Arab. I like that. I would say that they are all good, but I will say that you might take two or three and take the average of those. They are accurate to a degree. They’re pretty good at telling you, like, European or North African, but if we get down to, like, Scotland or Norway, that’s more of a guess.


NC: Do they tell you specific people you’re related to?


AJ: Oh yeah. They all do that. 23andMe, one of the first one’s I tried. They’ll send you a list of over 1000 people who were between 2nd and 8th cousins. It’s a mixed blessing. You’ve got a 1000 new cousins, which is good. And, so far, none of them have asked me to borrow money…


NC: But the good part is that surely they should all buy your book…


AJ: Yes, that’s the rationale. Everyone in the family has to buy the book!

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.