THE BLOG
10/17/2012 09:34 am ET | Updated Dec 17, 2012

Enough With the Famous Cousins Already!

In just the past week, we've been regaled with the supposedly startling revelations that:

  • Halle Berry and Sarah Palin are cousins
  • Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are related
  • Justin Bieber, Avril Lavigne, Ryan Gosling and Celine Dion are all cousins

My reaction to all this can probably best be summed up by this chapter title from my latest book: Barack Obama and Sarah Palin Are Related - *Yawn*

As I explain in that chapter after listing a similar set of famous cousins:

"What are the odds? Oh, about 100%. Well, maybe not 100%. I should probably refrain from addressing one form of hyperbole with another, so I'll temper my last statement and reduce the odds to 95%. And in the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess that I'm also guilty of participation. The Barack Obama-Brad Pitt (ninth cousins) connection was my doing, so I haven't exactly been an innocent bystander in the "I can't believe they're related" game. But I'm over it, and I hope everyone else is too."*

When I was little, my grandfather used to confound me with his mind-reading skills when we would play a little math game:

  1. Think of a number
  2. Double it
  3. Add 10 (or some other number)
  4. Divide by 2
  5. Subtract the number you first thought of

Time and time again, no matter what number I focused on, he was able to tell me exactly what it was. And until I was old enough to understand the simple formula behind this (the answer will always be half of the figure you add in step 3), I was dazzled.

A similar concept applies here. Until you understand the fundamentals of genealogical math, you will likely remain impressed with these famous cousin connections, but once you do - not so much. In a nutshell, many people who lived more than three or four hundred years ago now have millions of descendants (yes, millions), and inevitably, a few of them will be famous. And while it used to at least be worthy of note that people would take the time to ferret out these hidden links among living progeny, the growing number of massive genealogical databases makes this less and less remarkable. Those on the prowl for potential headline-grabbing cousinships also know exactly where to look:

"Colonial times in North America constitute a famous cousin sweet spot. They're long enough ago that genealogical math has had a chance to work its magic, but recent enough that there's often a paper trail to follow. That's why - if you pay attention the next time you hear a famous cousin revelation - the touted connections almost always involve a shared colonial American or French-Canadian ancestor. And the living celebrities will rarely be more closely related than seventh cousins. In fact, they're most often eighth, ninth or tenth cousins. About the only exceptions to this pattern are those who are related even more distantly, generally through a royal ancestor who lived back before America and Canada existed."*

This is why Barack Obama (who has deep colonial roots on his mother's side) is cousins with Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, Brad Pitt, George Bush, Harry Truman, Warren Buffett, Rush Limbaugh, and countless others, and why Hillary Clinton (who has French-Canadian heritage) is cousins with Madonna, Angelina Jolie, Celine Dion and Shania Twain, to name a few. As to the recent revelations, Halle Berry didn't share any specifics, but the Obama-Romney link stems from an English king and the six-degrees-of-Justin-Bieber game hinges on French-Canadian ancestry.

Lest I burst anyone's bubble, I should point out there are occasional celebrity kinships that grab my attention. For instance, I was genuinely surprised to learn that Gwyneth Paltrow and Gabrielle Giffords are second cousins. This unexpectedly close connection passed my cousin litmus test, which I'll share here for everyone's use:

The next time you hear that celebrity A and celebrity B are cousins, ask yourself two questions:

  • Are they more closely related than seventh cousins?
  • Was the common ancestor not a colonial American, French-Canadian or royal?

If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then you're dealing with a tweet-worthy announcement you might want to share with others. But if the answer is no, in the words of intensively-cousined Shania Twain, "that don't impress me much."*

* Excerpted from Chapter 2 of Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing

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