#2: My Generation, Cousins!

2.1  A family tree spreads out in 2 directions: verticality and horizontally. The vertical is called your “direct line” or “lineage”…the technical term is lineal. Going “up,” this consists of your father, grandfather, great grandfather, etc. Going “down,” your son, grandson, great grandson, etc. These are the people you are directly related to…your ancestors (up) and your descendants  or progeny (down). These are the people who passed genes on to you, and to whom you passed genes. This reflects the biological reality of procreation…which is what family is all about, nez pah?

2.2  Horizontally along your family tree, you have what’s called your collateral relations…which is everyone who isn’t lineal…these include your brother, your father’s brother (your uncle), your grandfather’s brother, etc. And because each “nuclear family” unit is repeated, up, down and sideways thru-out your family tree, collateral relations also include your cousins, your father’s cousins, your grandfather’s cousins, etc. You are of course related to all your collaterals…and collateral relatives of past generations are in a general sense your ancestors, but you are not “descended” from them…that term is reserved for members of your direct line only. Thus, the snooty club for people descended from passengers of the Mayflower will deny membership to someone related to one of those passengers collaterally, but not lineally.

2.3  In terms of where your genes have been, and where they’re going, the relevant relations are the lineal ones. Indeed, they are the whole basis for kinship, for families, for “blood lines.” Your father and grandfather are the past…and your son and grandson are the future. As for the present, your most important relations are your collateral ones, your siblings and cousins…they are, quite literally, Your Generation.

chart 2

In the Chart 2  above, orange is your lineal relations…blue is your collaterals…and dark blue is your generation.

2.4  In days gone by, when mobility was limited, most people lived their whole lives in one place. The people you lived with, worked with, worshiped with, marched to war with, organized and governed your community with…were your kith (neighbors) and kin (relatives.) But there was overlap…to varying degrees, kith was kin!

2.5  Now the governing principle here is that the same patterns repeat…the basic “nuclear family” unit…of father and mother, sons and daughers. You are part of such a unit…as was your father, as will be your son. What’s true genealogically of you is true of them too…thus, you have your generation, and they have theirs. How do we describe the relationships between generations?

2.6  And the answer is twofold…for lineal relations, we use the terms grand and great. For collateral relations, we use that mysterious word removed. Try this experiment…when somebody mentions their “2nd cousin,” and makes it clear they are talking about their 1st cousin’s son, ask them what a 1st cousin once removed would be? Chances are they don’t know…they never learned…and besides, it’s just too darn complicated!

2.7  But it isn’t! Removed just means a cousin in somebody else’s generation, not yours. A “cousin removed” is a cousin to somebody in your direct line…your father’s cousin, your grandfather’s cousin, etc. That’s it in a nutshell…the whole secret revealed…it’s just that simple.

chart 1 father

2.8  Let’s look at your father’s generation in highlighted in Chart 1he, like you, has numbered cousins…1st, 2nd, 3rd…his generation. Your father’s box is colored yellow, and in the yellow sections of the boxes to his right, the relatives of his generation are indicated. And you (the green section) are related to each individual the same way your father is, except once removed. Thus “once removed” literally means “of your father’s generation.” And it’s an easy thing to extend this upward…your grandfather’s generaiton, “twice removed”…your great grandfather’s generaiton, “3 times removed,” and so on.

2.9  Well, all of your father’s generation of relatives is a “removed” relative of yours…EXCEPT his siblings. We have special names for our parents’ siblings: uncles and aunts. And going back, we treat uncles and aunts like parents, which is to say, your father’s uncle is your grand uncle, in the same way that your father’s father is your grandfather. This language developed because of the special bond of the nuclear family unit. But if you wanted to look at it mathematically (and in some cases of complicated kinship analysis, it makes sense to), your brother can be thought of as your 0th cousin…that’s “zero-th”. Thus, your uncle would be what? Your 0th cousin onced removed.

2.10  We ought not underestimate the importance of our generational relatives. These were the relationships that cemented a community together, the blood-ties that were, as they say, “thicker than water.” Consider this: Assume that historically every man in your village had 5 sons who reached adulthood, and each of them had 5 sons. Your generation, your siblings, 1st cousins, etc, extending out to your 5th cousins, would constitute 15,625 individuals! Mind you, that’s just on one side of your father’s side of the. Add another 15,625 thru your mother, you’ve got quite a little burg going there…30,000 people…which in 1776 happened to be the population of the city of Boston…I’m just sayin’…

2.11  In fact, the experts say everyone alive today, all 7,000,000,000 of us, are no more distantly related than 50th cousin.Taking an average generation as 20 years…which is rather conservative considering that for most of human history, life expectancy was half what it is today…50th cousins have a common ancestor only 1,000 years ago, and recorded history goes back at least 4,000 years. It’s actually kind of mind-boggling when you think about it.

2.12  And the one part of community life that was far and away the most important was marriage, parentage, and offspring. Believe it or not, the experts say that 20% of all marriages in the world today are between 1st cousins, and down thru history, that figure is 80%! In fact, it was very unusual to marry some one who wasn’t related to you…it would have had to be someone from another clan or village, what the experts call “out-breeding”…and of course, for the sake of genetic diversity, this was a beneficial thing, but rare nonetheless. “Keeping it in the family” made perfect sense: parents arranged their children’s matches, and they chose from the pool of people who they lived with and who they knew…even to the degree of those rare societies that practiced sibling marriage.

2.13  It’s funny, but today we think of it in terms of who you can’t marry. While legal in half the states for example, 1st cousin marriages are still uncommon, and usually frowned upon. The Christian world generally bans 1st and 2nd cousins from marrying…3rd cousins and beyond are allowed. In fact, that was Rudy Guliani’s reason for divorcing his 1st wife…as Catholics, they thought they were 3rd cousins, but it turned out they were 2nd. Yeah, there were raised eyebrows over that “explanation,” but let it pass. The point is, kinship today is used to exclude potential mates…in olden times, it was just the opposite!

2.14  But I should clarify something. When considering 5th Cousins, I mentioned15,000 cousins plus change descending from 64 great great great great (i.e. “4G”) grandfathers as if those ancestors were all different individuals…and they may not have been. You may have heard the argument that “we’re all related” because if we weren’t, a thousand or so years ago, a trillion different people would have had to have been alive, which is impossible…I’m ballparking the figures, but you see the point. And this is absolutely true. There is a ton of “overlapping,” and for a dramatic example of this, you need look no further than the royal houses of Europe. Untangling their interconnections is a real challenge, and good practice, too.

2.15  And it isn’t exactly “in-breeding,” at least not in the sense of farm-animals. But cousins of any degree were fair game…and you’ll even find uncle-niece pairings, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Such eminent personages as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (the guy “in the can”) were 1st cousins. And Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, both great great grandchildren of Queen Victoria, are 3rd cousins…thru various other lines, they are also 2nd cousins once removed, 4th cousins, 4th cousins once removed, 5th cousins, and who knows what else.

2.16  But getting back to “cousins removed,” keep this mantra in mind and you can’t go wrong: a removed cousin is a cousin to somebody else, not to you…they belong to the generation of somebody in your direct line, but not to your generation. Next week, we’ll look more closely at precisely who your 2nd cousins are, and why. But before we go…

chart 3

2.17  Answers from last week…But take for example your maternal grandmother’s niece. How is she related to you [1st cousin once removed], to your mother [1st cousin], to your daughter [1st cousin twice removed], to your own niece [also 1C 2R]? I’m guessing the answers didn’t roll off your tongue. How is your 2nd cousin related to your 3rd cousin [3rd cousin]? How are your father’s uncles related to your nephews [great grand uncles]?”

2.18  Also from last week…I posed a half-brother puzzle, to demonstrate how kinship relationships can be far from obvious. I asked how Al could be your  half-brother, and not related to your wife…and Zeke could be your wife’s  half-brother, and not related to you…and yet Al and Zeke could be  half-brothers to each other. To those of you who saw immediately how this could be, I salute you. Here’s the diagram…

chart 4

As you can see in the top half of Chart 4, left, you and Al are  half-brothers thru your mutual father…likewise, top half, right, your wife and Zeke are  half-siblings thru their mutual father. And if the mothers designated “?” are the same person, then Al and Zeke are half-brothers thru her. Which is another way of saying, your brother’s brother is your brother, but your half-brother’s half-brother might not be your half-brother. Thank you, and good night, till next week…


Copyright © 2011 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved


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