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from the Secretary General

Relational Math

by Robert L. Stern

Every now and then I indulge a curiosity about my family roots and try to find out more about my ancestors.

Out of 4 grandparents (2²), I never knew two of them at all; they died while I was still an infant. I barely remember a grandmother who died when I was three-years-old. I did know my mother’s father somewhat more. He died when I was thirteen.Growing up, I never even heard the names of all my 8 great-grandparents (2³). Later, I found out that six of them were “from the other side“ – i.e., immigrants.

All 16 of the fourth generation of my ancestors (24) were from Europe, my mother’s people from Ireland and my father’s, from Baden, Hamburg, Hesse-Darmstadt and Prussia (all part of today’s Germany).

That’s as far back as I can go, and I don’t even know all of the names of that generation of my great-great-grandparents. Even so, as I sometimes reflect, if any one of these unknown ancestors had never existed – or never married as they did – I would never have come to be at all.

Most of them were born about a hundred years before me; in other words, in my family the gap between one generation and the next is approximately twenty-five years.

If that’s usually the case and if I go back a thousand years or so, I must have had almost forty generations of ancestors. That comes to 240 or 1,099,511,627,776 people.

Clearly that’s impossible. One thousand years ago there weren’t that many people in the whole world – but the math seems correct and I couldn’t be here if I didn’t have these antecedents.

Now, let’s push the absurdity just a little bit further: Any one of the several billion people alive in the world today could claim a similar number of impossible ancestors.

The only conceivable way of explaining it is by interrelationships – over the centuries people must have married remote, unknown relatives.It may not be rigorously scientific, but I think it’s fair to say that if you go back far enough – and forty generations really isn’t so very far – we’re all distantly related.

That means every other person in the whole world somehow must be a cousin, even if that person is hundreds of generations removed.

Curiously the mathematics – plus a little probability theory – leads to a conclusion similar to that implied by the creation stories of the Book of Genesis: If we’re all descended from the first man and woman, we must all be distant cousins, no matter how many centuries apart.

So what? Well, we all know the bonds of family, the ties of blood and, for better or worse, the obligations that enmesh us in a web of relationships – whether clan, tribe, ethnic group or nation. If we’re all related, then everybody’s part of that web. There are no outsiders, foreigners, strangers or gentiles. We are all one human family.

There’s a beautiful attraction at Disney theme parks that illustrates this very well. You get in a boat and ride in a kind of world tour through a fantasy of little animated dolls, each one in the colorful dress of his or her country or culture. All play typical instruments, dance traditional dances and sing, but in spite of their diversity, they sing the same song, “It’s a small world after all.“

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Tags: Religious Taxonomy