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Risibility and Relativity

Gentle Readers who listen to really good NPR stations will find Charlotte Green’s voice familiar, although they might not have heard it quite like this.

This is the sort of news that gets into me all slantwise. I come away from it not thinking How unprofessional Charlotte Green was at that moment but hunh, I’d expect that sort of thing to happen all the time, imagine how professional you’d have to be for how long for this to be news.

Similarly, the news from the New England Genealogical Society about how all the Presidential Candidates are distantly related to famous people reminded me how great it is that for all the political dynasties, political participation at the top level really isn’t restricted to the Forty Families. John McCain has only one great-great-great-great-grandparent in common with Laura Bush, and none with Our Only President, and that doesn’t disqualify him from office. Even the incredibly well-connected and dynastic Hillary Clinton shares no great-great-grandparents with recent presidents, nor great-great-great-great-grandparents, either. She does have one great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparent in common with Camilla Parker-Bowles. Barack Obama is more closely connected with our countries powerful, being connected to nearly everybody through one or another great-great-great-great-great-great—look, isn’t it obvious that there’s no Debrett’s here?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I don't understand why the geneological article qualifies as news? It is simply mathematical sleight-of-hand in a pretty package. Because being distantly related to a famous person is the rule rather than the exception, whether you aspire to the Presidency or not.

From River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins:

"...I once asked a student to make an educated guess as to how long ago her most recent common ancestor with me might have lived. Looking hard at my face, she unhesistatingly replied, in a slow, rural accent, "Back to the apes." An excusable intuitive leap, but it is approximately 10,000 percent wrong. It would suggest a separation measured in millions of years. The truth is that the most recent ancestor she and I shared would possibly have lived no more than a couple of centures ago, possibly well after William the Conqueror. Moreover, we were certainly cousins in many different ways simultaneously."

My own children, through no fault of my own genes, are directly descended from a 17th century English Earl who settled in rural Virginia. What can I say? These things happen.

I suspect that the Geneology cranks put out a press release, which makes for an easy article by the reporter, who I also suspect doesn't get the dealio with great^6 grandparents. The thing that is interesting, to the extent that there is anything interesting at all, is simply that all these people can trace their ancestry back six or ten generations. I sure can't. No Virginian Earls. No Quebecois. Two of my illegal-immigrant grandparents came from a section of a town in Poland that was wiped out with all its records. One was chased across the Russian border by Cossacks and neglected to bring any records along. One grandparent was actually born in the US, and (get this!) his father was born in the US, so if we had at some point bothered to go back through that line we could conceivably find some famous relations, but probably we'd just run up against some other town with missing records, this one in Germany.

The point is that I probably am ninth cousins with some famous person, or with twenty famous people, but I have no way of knowing it. The Geneology cranks get this stuff put into the paper so that people like me will spend time and treasure finding out that I'm really a Rothschild, but I won't.


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