Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Fear not. Clinton is related to Angelina, but you might be, too.

That's right.

The New England Historic Genealogical Society announced some interesting findings this week.

Hilary Clinton and Angelina Jolie have something in common: they are ninth cousins. Author Jack Kerouac and Camilla Parker-Bowles, wife of England’s Prince Charles are also among Clinton’s gene pool.

An auspicious family tree, nay, orchard, if you ask me. Lots of interesting branches.

But I am not shocked. In fact, I’d wager that at least one of the readers of this blog is my distant relative. (Hey, you want an author to write about our big, dysfunctional family, right?) This is all part of a concept known as pedigree collapse.
Here’s how it works.

We all have two parents, four grandparents, and eight great grandparents. Let’s assume for the sake of math that the average generation is twenty-five years long. If we go back in time 1200 years (800 AD) each person would have 281.5 trillion grandparents. This calculation is done by reasoning the number of grandparents doubles every 25 years – and in 48 generations (or 1200 years) 281.5 trillion names would be on a person’s pedigree.

But in 800 AD, there weren’t even that many people in the world. How could any of us have that many grandparents? The answer: they are not all different people. Some names on your family tree would appear twice, or ten times, or even one hundred times over the years. Ancestors married their relatives throughout the years, knowingly or unknowingly. This was particularly common among royal families who were encouraged to marry other kinsman of royal blood.

This is pedigree collapse. So if you trace your family roots backward, you will find that it spreads out for several generations – and ultimately "collapses" back on itself, corresponding with the original size of the world’s population.

There are even some geneticists who believe that everyone on earth is at least a 50th cousin to everyone else. It’s no wonder we don’t always get along. Most large families do not.

But, this is what makes the study of genetic inheritance so fascinating. The knowledge that gifts, talents – even dark traits like mental illness or disease – can be passed down from one generation to the next. This linking of one ancestor to another is the integral theme to my novel Janeology – where you will meet eight of Jane’s ancestors as her husband searches her family tree for answers to her nature and nurture.

In the beginning of the story, you will meet with Jane, age nine, as she was abandoned by her own mother. (This is my personal favorite chapter of the book.) And you meet her mother, Victoria, who left New England as soon as she was of age, forever cutting off ties with her father -- Jane’s grandfather, Horace, who is filled with regret as he comes to terms with the focus of Victoria’s contempt. And then, Jane’s great-grandfather, Charles, a distant scientist, who looked the other way when his wife once tried to sell Horace’s twin sister to a carnival manager. For his part, Charles has been plagued by uneasiness all of his life, because his mother, Jane’s great, great grandmother, Eliza Anne, woke in a London hospital with no knowledge of who or where she was. And these are merely the relatives on Jane’s maternal side of the family. Many more are found on her paternal side.

In fact, if you visit my website, you can see Jane’s pedigree chart.

So next time you research your family tree, expect to find the unexpected. And for all you cousins out there I have yet to meet, Howdy!


Karen Harrington is the author of Janeology.

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