World's Largest Family Reunion: Genealogy or Preen-ealogy?

06/01/2015 02:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016


A.J. Jacobs has me at war with myself. As a fan of experiment-on-self books and documentaries, I'm a long-time admirer of his and greatly enjoyed The Know-It-All, The Year of Living Biblically, and The Guinea Pig Diaries. So when I first learned of his upcoming book -- tentatively entitled It's All Relative -- about his adventures in the genealogical world, I was excited. Great, I thought, he'll bring lots of attention to family history!

And then I watched his TED talk (now nearing a million views) where he makes his case for genealogy by expounding upon five benefits: scientific value, bringing history alive, interconnectedness, a kinder world, and a democratizing effect. All of this is familiar territory for me, as I've been sounding these same themes for more than a decade. So far, so good. I was on board.

The focal point of all this is a family reunion to be held in New York on June 6, and its goal is to bump the Porteau-Boileve family (stemming from a couple who lived in the 17th century) from their Guinness World Record slot as the largest family reunion ever. In August 2012, 4,514 members of this extended family all gathered together in France on one day. That's impressive, so how was A.J. Jacobs going to top this with so little lead time?

I dug deeper, and that's when the internal battle began. I want to be psyched about this and cheer A.J. on, but I just can't seem to let go of a few nagging concerns.

1. The definition of family is being stretched to include anyone connected in any way via blood or marriage.

One of my favorite aspects of genealogy is that it helps us grasp the fact that we're all cousins. A strong case has been made that we're all 50th cousins or closer, though there are those who would push that as far as 70th cousins, but whatever the exact figure, that's pretty darn amazing. And one of the objectives of this Global Family Reunion (GFR) is to get that message across.

Twenty-first century developments in the genealogical world (e.g., online family trees, genetic testing, social media, TV shows, etc.) have been awakening millions to this realization, but to reach the June 6 reunion finish line, the GFR has taken a few shortcuts to try to get us there faster.

One of the mechanisms employed to do this was to expand the boundaries of genealogy. Traditionally, emphasis has been placed the study of blood ties. You could be related "by marriage" -- and once a couple had a child, you usually wound up related by blood anyway -- but the GFR leans very heavily on marriage connections. By way of example, A.J. Jacobs's relationship to Marilyn Monroe is described as follows:

Marilyn Monroe is AJ's second great aunt's aunt's husband's first cousin twice removed's wife's great niece's husband's great nephew's wife's father's ex-wife.

Assuming that any of us could actually wrap our heads around what the heck this really means, notice that the words "husband" and "wife" appear four times in this single connection. In other words, the GFR is getting an enormous boost numbers-wise from those who had multiple marriages (wildly common in the past due to early deaths) and those who married, but had no offspring.

To put this into perspective, my dad's second wife had a previous marriage with no children, and according to the GFR approach, I would be cousins with the entire family -- all the ancestors and descendants -- of my stepmother's ex. And all of his family members would tap into my entire ancestral pool and be declared cousins. Thousands of people who lived over hundreds of years would become instant cousins due to a brief, 20th century, starter marriage. Similarly, many of A.J.' s cousin connections (such as these) have been shared, and though I tried, I could not find one that didn't rely on this "by marriage" crutch.

At a bare minimum, this interpretation of family means that the unfortunate Porteau-Boileve family in France doesn't stand a chance to retain its world record because it's a classic apples and oranges situation. The Porteau-Boileve reunion was of apples from the same (family) tree, while the GFR oranges will apparently get to count anything that's orange.

But let's tuck this consideration aside. We are all related -- by blood. There was no need to stretch the definition, but now, due to these extreme, almost comical, family connections, we may well end up with as many skeptics as new believers. How many could-be converts will take a look at these tortuous connections, roll their eyes, and reach the conclusion that genealogy itself is a joke? So I can't help but worry: Are we taking something that's genuinely mind-blowing and reducing it to the level of those fake coats of arms sold online and off carts in the mall? Isn't it already cool enough that we're all cousins without having to turn to the most tenuous of links to make this point?

2. The engine behind the Global Family Reunion is online family trees with an assist from DNA.

I'm a big-time proponent of both Internet genealogy and genetic genealogy. I've written books on them, and as early as 2007, was quoted as saying, "The Internet has created this massive democratization in the whole family history world. It's like a global game of tag."

Decades ago on one of my first research field trips, I was informed, "Your people wouldn't have owned property." Ever since I encountered that elitist attitude, I've been an advocate of inclusivity. I want as many family history playmates as possible. After all, genealogy is ultimately about connection, so what's the point of trying to keep it a private club?

I was also one of the earliest and most vocal champions of DNA testing for family history purposes, and have been using it as part of my research arsenal for 15 years.

All of this would seem to put me in sync with the Global Family Reunion which is using online trees with the aim of "building a Family Tree of the entire Human Race." But here's the one, little, finicky detail that keeps me on the sidelines: I'm obsessed with accuracy.

Online family trees are a double-edged sword. As valuable as they can be, many are riddled with errors (my all-time favorite being that Adam and Eve's kids were born in British Columbia). I'm fine with this because I want all the data -- accurate or flawed -- I can get my hands on. Maybe that tree that has the wrong date of marriage will at least have the correct place, giving me a critical hint for finding the original record. But the downside is that the constant merging of online trees is creating an unfortunate echo effect that often allows bad information to outshout the good. And the more we merge, the more pronounced that phenomenon is becoming.

I encountered this recently when researching the family tree of Hillary Clinton. Given that she's one of the best known people on the planet, it's not surprising that many had already explored her ancestry. I found family trees that included her on every genealogical website I checked, including those involved with the GFR -- and they all had a quarter of her family tree wrong. Why? Because everybody just kept copying everyone else without troubling to research. If that can happen to someone as heavily scrutinized as Clinton, imagine how common such flaws are in other trees. Nor is this an unusual situation. I just ran into it again with a Medal of Honor recipient.

The idea behind constructing a family tree of the human race is much like that of Wikipedia -- many hands make light work. Whenever an error creeps in, the theory goes, someone will spot and revise it. This constant collaboration will gradually sort all things out. But it's a lot of work to amend something that everyone has come to believe. I just took another look at those Hillary Clinton trees I had consulted earlier, and most of them stubbornly retain someone else's family. And though I'm a fan and supporter of Wikipedia, anyone who has tried to modify details on Wikipedia pages knows what an uphill battle it can be to correct misinformation that others cling to simply because it's been repeated over and over again.

I'm obsessed with accuracy because I have to be. If I'm sloppy, soldiers from past conflicts could be misidentified, coroners could unnecessarily upset wrong families, and so forth. The consequences for hobbyists are less dire, but the most common outcome of relationships being adjusted is the lopping off of an existing branch of your family tree. That might not matter much if it weren't for the next point.

3. The Global Family Reunion places extreme emphasis on famous cousins.

The Global Family Reunion has used famous-cousin connections as a cornerstone in its strategy to attract attention. A.J. Jacobs, it turns out, is cousins with Paul McCartney, Albert Einstein, Gwyneth Paltrow, Barack Obama, Daniel Radcliffe, Ben Franklin, and -- well, just about every well-known person who's ever lived. Others are encouraged to participate and attend in order to find their own famous cousins. In fact, this has been one of the main marketing messages. On the home page of the GFR, you're exhorted to "Join the Family! Find out how you are related to John Legend, Ricky Gervais, George H.W. Bush and more... Our family tree has 280 million people on it. We want you!"

Revisiting the last point for a moment, one has to wonder how many of those 280 million recently lost Hillary Clinton as a cousin when the GFR corrected her family tree (and whether any of them even knows) - and more to the point, how frequently this happens as the tree continues to evolve and wrong branches get cut off. From my perspective, this isn't much of a consideration, but if your primary reason for joining is to find famous cousins, it's kind of a big deal. If this global family tree is constantly being improved through collaboration, then be prepared for an ever-changing cast of famous kin.

But here's my deepest concern about the Global Family Reunion: Has the marketing of it been so successful that we're in danger of changing the definition of genealogy? The interest in famous cousins has always been there, but has the prominence of this aspect in the GFR's PR campaign (a small sample of the coverage can be found here) been such that many will think that's the whole point? He with the most famous cousins wins?

The importance of famous cousins to the Global Family Reunion was brought home to me in an unexpected Twitter exchange with an avid participant who sought me out due to a piece I wrote on the family history of Bruno Mars.

I had never interacted with this fellow before, but he was surprisingly insistent that I share additional details about the performer's family. I explained that I couldn't because they could potentially lead others to living family members, but he persisted. When I asked why this was so important to him, he replied:


His bald comment about Mars (since deleted) startled me, so I Googled him and that's when I discovered that he is one of the most active recruiters in these world family tree efforts. I had researched Bruno Mars because I admire his talent and love his music, and suspected that he would have an intriguing back story (he does), but this man regarded him merely as a useful addition to a database. With his multi-cultural background (Ukrainian, American, Filipino, Hispanic, Jewish, Hawaiian, Puerto Rican, European, Hungarian, Asian, and Spanish would all be accurate descriptions), Mars would be a great "get." Not only would he serve as a famous cousin for many, but also as a human bridge linking countless people from several continents.

This is when the internal debate I had been having about the GFR went into overdrive. When you're focused on numbers and names, accuracy is the first victim. It's the innocent bystander who gets shot. Yes, I brought this up before and know that some regard it as quaint to care about accuracy, but if we don't, why bother with genealogy at all? Why not make up a family tree that shows you descended from Fred and Wilma Flintstone? If you want to be George Clooney's cousin, just make it so. Of course, doing so will rob you of the thrill of the hunt -- the underappreciated aspect that keeps us addicted to our personal history mystery quests for years -- but merging trees is undoubtedly more efficient.

And if genealogy is all about numbers and names, doesn't that cheapen it? To me, the heart and soul of genealogy is uncovering and learning the stories of our ancestors. It's about them, but if your end goal is name collecting or name dropping, you're making it all about you. It's the historical version of a selfie.

This may sound funny coming from me. After all, I've worked on all the celebrity roots shows - Who Do You Think You Are?, Finding Your Roots, Faces of America, African American Roots, etc. But having done so, I can share something many don't realize. If you ask people what their favorite episode of any series is, they won't claim the one with their favorite celebrity. Instead, they'll mention the one whose story is most similar to that of their own family. They come for the celebrity, but they stay for the story. And that feels right.

Happy Reunion... Really!

I've struggled for months with whether to write this. My poor husband has patiently listened as I talked myself out of this, only to change my mind (lather, rinse, repeat). I fully realize that many reading this are scoffing at what a luddite I am and seeing me as the virtual equivalent of the old man yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off his yard. And I'm sure there are those who will dismiss me as a professional trying to protect her turf. There's little upside for me for sharing my thoughts and plenty of potential downside, but as hackneyed as it may sound, I ultimately decided that I had to speak up.

I genuinely hope the Global Family Reunion is a huge success, and becomes, as the program hints, an annual event. I hope it and Morgan Spurlock's accompanying documentary will bring millions of fresh genealogists -- including loads of youngsters -- into the family history fold, and help them grasp the reality that we are all truly cousins. I hope that A.J. Jacobs's book outsells all the other bestsellers he's already written. I hope that a huge amount will be raised for Alzheimer's and that all the sponsors are swamped with new customers. And I understand that if all that happens, it will largely be due to the colossal, celebrity-focused family tree that I've just spent 2,000 words rambling on about.

But should the success of this reunion allow the luxury of a recurring event, wouldn't it be wonderful if our ancestors could take center stage?

Disclaimer: The views presented here are solely my own. While I once represented a major genealogical company, I have not been affiliated with it for more than five years.