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Journalist A.J. Jacobs says 'We're the same family' at RootsTech

People holding signs declaring “I AM A COUSIN!” greeted A.J. Jacobs as he took the stage at the RootsTech conference Saturday morning.

Jacobs, a journalist from New York City who has spent years of his life dedicated to projects including following all the commandments found in the Bible one year and another to healthy living, is now on a quest to throw the largest family reunion on June 6.

Jacobs was inspired by an email he received from an Israeli man who had discovered that Jacobs was a 12th cousin on his family tree of 80,000 people.

The revelation was a “bright nugget of positivity” to Jacobs.

“It is a reminder that I’m connected to something so much bigger than myself,” he said. “I realized this is the ultimate social network.”

He dived into genealogy and found it “addictive” for the “pure joy of the puzzle-solving” and because of the two forces that were providing a “thrilling era” of breakthroughs in genealogy: DNA testing and the Internet.

“Instead of one person working on a single tree, you have hundreds creating an interconnected family tree,” he said. “It’s not even a family tree anymore, it’s an Amazonian forest.”

During his research, Jacobs has found even larger family trees than the one that first introduced him to genealogy. FamilySearch.org has one mega family tree with 270 million people, and one world family tree has 86 million people in 160 countries, all related by blood or marriage and “sometimes both — no judgment,” he said.

Once he started working on his own family tree, Jacobs found connections with celebrities such as Barack Obama and Gwyneth Paltrow.

“Now, I’m not boasting, because you all have these same cousins,” he said. “Some of them are blood cousins, some are cousins-in-law, cousins by marriage, but still, in the big sense of the word, they are family. … It’s like six degrees to Kevin Bacon and everyone is Kevin Bacon.”

Jacobs said there were four reasons why connecting everyone through a global family was important.

First, studying the massive family trees provides scientific benefit.

Scientists at New York University are currently studying how traits and diseases are passed through family trees using information from geni.com, he said.

Second, genealogy brings family history alive and “embed us in history.”

“When I told my kids they were linked to Albert Einstien, their eyes lit up,” he said. “Now he’s not just some old, dead, white guy with crazy hair, he’s ‘Uncle Albert.’ They want to know what he said.”

Third, the global family shows the interconnectedness of the human species.

“An MIT scientist estimates that the farthest cousin you have on earth is a 70th cousin, and that’s the farthest,” he said. “Most of us are much, much closer.”

Fourth, Jacobs said he hopes a global family tree will lead to a kinder world.

“We’re the same species, we’re the same family,” he said.

After compiling a list of hundreds of thousands of cousins, Jacobs decided to have his cousins come together for the world’s largest family reunion, which is scheduled for June 6 in New York City with branch parties around the globe, including the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

“It’s going to be like family reunion meets genealogy conference meets music festival,” he said.

Email: vromney@deseretnews.com, Twitter: GinnyRomney