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Are You My Cousin?

How DNA technology can help solve mysteries in your family tree.

Now that was a head scratcher. At first I thought it must be a mistake. But we are, indeed, a match. There is a 96.56 percent chance we share a common ancestor within the past 24 generations. That’s about 600 years ago—or some 85 years before all Jews were expelled from Spain. Which means there’s a good chance I’m not only eastern European but Spanish.

That revelation, though, wasn’t as big a surprise as the e-mail I received just a day after I first saw my results. It was from Harry, the cousin I mentioned earlier. You see, when you swab the inside of your cheek, you also give your name and e-mail address, and indicate whether you wish to share them with others. If you do, you and your genetic matches will be able to contact one another. This function is what really makes the process worthwhile, because it enables two previously unacquainted people to work together on tracing their shared family tree. (The image that comes to my mind is of two miners tunneling toward each other in the hope they’ll eventually meet.)

This, says Bennett Greenspan, was his vision from the start. Today his company’s database has more than 200,000 people in it. Greenspan configured that database so it would seek out matches between members and facilitate their getting in touch with one another. Which means that every time a new person enters the database, matches are instantly notified of the newcomer’s arrival.

So back to my e-mail from Harry. He was writing, he explained, to invite me to join a club of sorts, in which all the members were genetically matched. Not to brag, but my cluster group has 81 members at present and is, according to Greenspan, one of the largest and most active. I, of course, couldn’t be prouder.

But here, at last, is perhaps the most surprising thing of all: what seems, on the surface, to be the coldest, most impersonal means of tracing your own lineage is anything but. As I have said, before I received that e-mail, I had no idea Harry existed. Aside from the fact that he and I both live in the New York City area and share a direct ancestor, we have very little in common. He’s in his 80s, was born in Vienna, and is an electrical engineer; I’m in my 40s, was born in New York City, and am still inclined to stick a fork in the toaster unless someone stops me. And yet we have become very friendly, talk and e-mail often, and have even made plans to visit in person.

It’s strange to think that it wasn’t some outside networking entity but something deep inside me—not the Elks lodge or MySpace but my own DNA—that managed to offer me such a strong sense of community. I’ll have to find an armchair psychologist to tell. I’m sure there must be one in the family.

Richard Rubin wrote about collecting in the March & April 2008 issue.

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