Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Six degrees of cousinhood

Allegedly we're connected to anyone in the world through six degrees of separation.  That contention usually uses the criteria of "knowing someone" as the connector.  What, however, about being actually blood-related to the people we bump into?

I've had three instances of finding I'm related to someone that, by all odds, I shouldn't have any particular connection to.  The most recent, and to my mind most amazing, example of this I discovered only recently.  I was on the way to a gig in Rochester with my band Crooked Sixpence, and Kathy, the fiddler, was carpooling with me and our friend Pamela who calls many of the dances we play for.

We were just chatting idly when the subject of family came up.  Kathy, who was born and raised in southeastern England, was telling us that while she seems thoroughly British, actually one side of her family were French Jews who came over to England from Alsace in the late 1800s.

"That's interesting," I said.  "My family is mostly Cajun French, and they were Catholics who came over to Nova Scotia from France in the 17th century; but one branch of my family were part of a small Jewish group in Donaldsonville, Louisiana -- and my forebears on that side of the family came over from Alsace in the 1800s, too.  What was your Jewish ancestor's last name?"

"It's a pretty odd name," Kathy said.  "Godchaux."

Well, my jaw dropped; my great uncle, Lehmann Meyer, married a Godchaux.  This spurred Pamela to announce at the dance that Kathy and I were cousins, which got a good laugh because we look nothing alike, and there it rested.

Well, a couple of days ago, I decided to do a little digging, and found that someone had posted online records of a Godchaux family that had gone from Alsace to England.  I sent the link to Kathy, and she responded, "Je suis GOBSMACKED!  C'est ma famille!"  In fact, the records included the names of her grandmother and grandfather!  Intrigued, I started to examine the information on the link I'd sent more carefully.

Kathy's family, and mine, not only emigrated from the same area of France at the same time, the names of her ancestors and the folks they married share not one, or two, but eight family names.  On the Meyer branch of my family there are (by blood and by marriage) the names Bloch, Godchaux, Levy, Solomon, Kahn, Weill, and Dreyfus.  Amongst Kathy's Godchauxs are... Meyer, Bloch, Levy, Solomon, Kahn, Weill, and Dreyfus.

I still haven't found our common ancestor, but if we're not cousins, I'll be astonished.

What's the likelihood?  A French guy from Louisiana and an Englishwoman from near London, and we're probably cousins within six generations or so.  And, as I said, this isn't the first time this has happened to me; a former student, who was born and bred here in upstate New York, turned out to be a third cousin, once removed; and a woman who sat near us at Cornell hockey games for years, a third cousin.  In each case, we discovered the link through casual conversation that turned up the connection.

I know we're all related -- it's become almost a cliché.  But what has left me, like Kathy, gobsmacked is that we may be more closely related to some of our friends and casual acquaintances than we would have dreamed.  I wonder, if it were possible... if we're connected to everyone in the world by six degrees of separation, what is the average degree of cousinhood we share with those around us?  Unfortunately, it's probably not possible to figure that out, given the paucity of genealogical records prior to 1800, but as my experiences show, it may well be a smaller number than any of us would have guessed.

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