From the primordial soup to Twitter: We are family

Calgary Herald Dec 3. 2017: “It’s worse than eating peanuts,” my mom’s 90-year-old cousin said of her son’s joyful obsession with tracking the family genealogy. I look forward to reading his research into our Scottish ancestors and plan to sign my thank you note with a simple ‘Sandy’s granddaughter’ instead of cluttering it up with all the adjectives that come with explaining distant relations: your cuz twice removed and hold the onions.

People love discovering those connections despite the adjectival pile up. Tracing our genealogy has become a billion-dollar business. Giant crowdsourced databases have turned what was once months’ or years’ -long drudgery under fluorescent lights in dreary offices into a task that requires only a couple of clicks and a couple more bucks. In fact, people spend almost as much time searching their family histories on genealogy sites as they do surfing porn to research creative ways to produce the next generation.

One of these days I’ll get around to diving into the Allford side of the family to try to verify the story my grandfather told my dad. Apparently, somewhere up the line an Alford with one L got mad at the rest of the clan and added the second L to set himself apart. I love that story. But I’m a little afraid it’s all bunk and if I dig into it I’ll find out what really happened is a clerk had too much mead one Wednesday lunch before sitting down to record the village births.

I haven’t forked over any dough on a genealogy site but I did follow “One of them young ‘creative’ millennials” on Twitter who happens to have my dad’s name, Jack Allford. The Smiths and Singhs of the world likely don’t follow total strangers to see if maybe, just maybe, they’re related. People with common last names have to do some serious hiking to find their family tree in the forest of social media.

But for those of us who grew up the only ones in the phone book, it’s still a little weird seeing your name on someone else’s Facebook profile. And you can’t help but wonder how one Jennifer Allford ended up selling grass seed in Nebraska and another landed a mostly naked role in very low budget horror movie in LA.

You can dig much deeper into your family connections by taking a cheek swab and sending it along for genetic testing. After your DNA is analyzed against hundreds of thousands of genetic markers you’ll find out whether your peeps hail from Mali or Mazovia (wherever that is). I’m not that DNA curious. I don’t really care about the ethnicity of my ancestors. After all, we’re all mutts. Just like the best dogs.

If you go back far enough, you’ll find we’re all descended from a simple, single-celled organism that was making the rounds about 3.8 billion years ago. In the Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin wrote: “ … all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.” That’s LUCA, the last universal common ancestor.

LUCA is our “1.2 billionth great grampa or gramma, I don’t know if it had a gender,” says A. J. Jacobs, author of It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree. The book traces Jacob’s own genealogy, names plenty of his celeb distant cousins (including Olivia Wilde and Ricky Gervais) and tries to demonstrate that we’re all swinging from the same family tree, so please can’t we just get along?

“People put a lot of stock in where their ancestors came from,” Jacobs told CBC recently. “It gives them a sense of identity.” And once you know what club you belong to, you tend to like the other members more and want to help each other out — something known as the family bias. “If we can apply the family bias to everyone I think the world would be better,” he says, quite reasonably.

Take President George H. W. Bush. Jacobs wanted to interview him for the book and was turned down flat. That is until he mentioned that Bush is his first cousin once removed’s husband’s third-great-grandmother’s third-great-nephew. Presto, Jacobs found himself in Houston eating hamburgers with the 41st POTUS. “The family tree is like the ultimate social network,” the author says. “It’s like LinkedIn times 10.”

Jacob’s fifth great aunt’s husband’s brother’s wife’s seventh great nephew, Barack Obama, follows Jack Allford on Twitter. And as of Monday, Jack Allford follows me. My dad’s namesake told me that I’m the first person he’s ever encountered (beyond the Sunday dinner table) with the same last name. And we lost no time commiserating about people forgetting to add the second and most important L.

I can already tell he’s a standup guy.

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