31 March 2008

Six degrees of separation?

Gen-blogger Dick Eastman is quoted in today's New York Times story on the family history of Presidential candidates.

Last week, the New England Historic Genealogical Society issued a press release that it knew would get some bounce: the group said it had traced the ancestry of the presidential candidates and found that all of them had blood ties — albeit distant ones — to unlikely famous people.

Barack Obama, the group said, is related to George W. Bush and Brad Pitt. Hillary Rodham Clinton can claim Angelina Jolie, Jack Kerouac and Camilla Parker-Bowles. As for John McCain, who knew he was descended from William the Lion, King of Scots?

However distant the connections (ninth cousins?), the news sped across the Internet, prompting countless people to wonder: could I be related to someone important, too?

According to author Cate Doty, the revelations of the 163-year-old society in Boston did what they were supposed to: "spread a little publicity for a nonprofit group that revels in historic minutia."

Global interest overloaded the society's servers and society director D. Brenton Simons said he'd also been inundated with email, most of it asking "to whom could I be related?" He thought it was amusing.

Some genealogists shrugged their shoulders at the connections, pointing out that if we look hard enough, most of us are related to one another somehow. If the average person goes back 400 years, he or she has around 130,000 relatives, said Chris Child, a genealogist at the society who worked on the candidates’ lineages.

“Everybody thinks it’s unique. It really isn’t,” said Dick Eastman, who runs a genealogy newsletter. “It would be a much more impressive news story if researchers could positively prove that any two public figures are NOT related to each other.”

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