Skip to main content
ABC News
Podcast: Everyone Is Your Cousin

“Because of big data, genealogy is the most fascinating topic right now. It affects everything in life. It affects family and sex and history and the meaning of relatives and inheritance …”


You may have a few more cousins to invite to the holidays this year, according to A.J. Jacobs, an editor at large at Esquire magazine who’s best known for his lifestyle experiments. Jacobs’s latest project looks to build a family tree of the entire human race. So far, he’s at 240 million people, and he’s doing it with the help of big data. The plummeting cost of DNA sequencing and the ability to connect huge family trees online through Wikipedia-style websites have ushered in a new era of genealogy.

On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, we look at how data is changing genealogy and what having easily accessible, full DNA sequences means for the future.

Stream or download the full episode above, and find video and a partial transcript below.

AJ Jacobs on how big data is helping him build an enormous family tree

Big genetic data’s big problems

Jody Avirgan: Talk about some of the privacy stuff and the new future this creates. Are you excited for the point at which everyone will have their full sequencing?

A.J. Jacobs: Well, I think it’s going to be interesting. Partly it’s going to be fantastic, and partly it’s going to be horrible. And I don’t know which is going to win. Here’s a nightmare scenario: There was a study about the so-called monogamy gene. If you had it, you had a much higher chance of staying in a marriage, [you had] more oxytocin. I don’t know how valid that is, but it was a study out there.

So, imagine that you get your genome sequenced. And it’s going to be hackable; everyone’s going to be able to see it eventually, I believe. It’s going to be hard to keep secret. So, you’ll go see someone at a bar and with your whatever the future Google Glass is, you’ll have facial recognition. You’ll say, “Oh, that guy, he doesn’t have the monogamy gene. I’m not going to talk to him.” So, that’s just one small example of how it could affect us in a bad way.

In a good way, it’s got amazing potential for disease prevention and the science behind it. We’ll have an unprecedented history of the human race. So, it’s exciting and scary.

If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.