#118: GETTING geekED UP

118.1  Back in #24, I gave a blow-by-blow critique of a piece explaining cousins on a website called wiseGeek. In fact, I held it up as a perfect example of how NOT to do it. Apart from simple mistakes in calculating…which may or may not still be there, I haven’t checked…the basic premise was dead wrong, that being: Cousins aren’t reckoned from siblings, they’re reckoned from common ancestors. Well, the second part of that is true…you can reckon cousins from common great/grandparents, as well as from siblings and from previous cousins…it will all work out the same. The trouble with common grandparents is that sometimes it’s tricky…for example, 2 people can share 2 grandparents, yet not be 1st cousins…they can be double half-1st cousins. Using previous cousins is better: 2nd cousins are the offspring of 1st cousins, etc.

118.2  But the easiest and most surefire way to determine cousins is by looking for a pair of siblings, then working your way down thru their descendants…but this dumbGeek website actually says: “Cousins are not based on the relationship of a person’s parents to his or her siblings”…and of course nothing could be further from the truth.

118.3  Proof of what a poor job they do is the number of questions this site has generated…over 50 at last count…most of them rather straightforward, altho I’m not blaming the questioners…asking is the way you learn. I decided to answer each and every question here on Related How Again? ((formerly Genealogy For Baby Boomers)…with a complete explanation and a diagram…because they represent the real-life confusion people have these days in figuring kinship. At some point (you can check back and see where) I also started answering the questions right there on the wiseGEEK page…they won’t let you link to other websites, you see. It’s harder to do without charts, but there you go. And it’s time to get caught up…

chart 420.png

118.4  These first 3 questions ask the same thing: what does it mean if 2 people have grandparents who are siblings? Understanding that is the eureka! moment that opens you to a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of how our kinship system works. Thinking back, what were your first words? Probably mama and dada. At some point, you learned that the reason they were there in the first place was you “came” from them. And you had siblings, brothers and sisters who “came” from the same parents you did. And as you met other children, you saw that they had families like you did…but were children the only ones with mamas and dadas?

118.5  No, because you then came to understand that children grow to be adults, and when your parents themselves were children, they lived in the same kind of family arrangement as you…they had parents, you call them your grandparents…and they had brothers and sisters, your uncles and aunts. But now your parents’ siblings weren’t children anymore, they had their own families, exactly like your family…and that is the key to genealogy and kinship: the same basic patterns and relationships repeated over and over. And the children that “came” from your uncles and aunts were your cousins. This is pretty much what the “immediate family” is made of, and I daresay everyone understands it. It’s moving beyond this grouping that is not well understood…children of cousins, for example…and then there’s the family unit of your grandparents. 

118.6  It’s probably safe to say that right around the time you were checking into this world, your great grandparents were checking out…your memories of them, if any, are likely hazy. True, some people have living great great grandparents when they’re very young, but that’s not common. But let’s face it: what I’ve called the “immediate family” kept you pretty busy, so your thoughts seldom turned to the fact that your grandparents had the same family unit that you did…they had parents (your parents’ grandparents)…they had siblings (your parents’ uncles and aunts)…and those uncles and aunts had children (your parents’ cousins). And if you went further back…your grandparents had their own grandparents, and uncles and aunts, and cousins. The purpose of our kinship structure is to tie all those generations together with a uniform system of terms and relationships. Yes, we’re talking about 2nd, 3rd, 4th cousins, great grand uncles and nephews, and cousins removed.

118.7  So the 3 questioners in Chart 420 are taking that initial step: they know how their parents’ siblings relate to them, thru uncles, aunts, and 1st cousins…how about their grandparents’ siblings? The answer in each case is, the grandchildren of your grandparents’ siblings are your 2nd cousinsand away we go!

chart 421.png

118.8  Next, Chart 421 adds a new wrinkle: the grandparents in question are not full siblings, but half-siblings…they share one parent, but not both. What follows from half-siblings? Half-1st cousins, then, as here, half-2nd cousins. Some people think that’s slicing it too thin…cousins are cousins, siblings are siblings. That’s fine, but the fact remains that half-relations are only half as genetically related to you as full relations…and if you’re shopping for a spare kidney, who you gonna ask first? I’m just sayin’…

chart 422.png

118.9  The questioner in Chart 422 has it exactly right…your half-cousin’s child is your half-cousin once removed…put a “first” in there to be completely correct.

chart 423.png

118.10   I’ve found that many people enjoy knowing this stuff for the sake of knowing it…others have a more immediate concern: are we legal? Just as basic kinship relations are not well understood these days, what constitutes “incest” is also cloudy to many people…what does the law say, what does religion say, how far back does it go, and does “by marriage” count? The quick answer is: in the US, nothing beyond 1st cousin by blood (a genetic relationship of 1/8) is prohibited…and in half the states, you can marry your 1st cousin…as you can in virtually all of the rest of the world…and as people have done down thru history. In fact there was a time when it was preferred…and that preference still holds in many places today, altho it’s fallen out of social favor in Western culture…but still legal.

118.11  And with a deeper understanding of how genetics works, the risks associated with 1st cousins marrying are being re-examined, and generally found to be not nearly as dire as was once thought. 2nd cousins? 3rd cousins? Genetically, the danger is practically nil. There is even emerging evidence that 2nd or 3rd cousins might be preferable from a fertility standpoint…imagine that!  And by 4th or 5th cousins, you are as closely related as you would be to a random person off the street. I’m recalling actress Kyra Sedgwick freaking out when she discovered that she and her husband Kevin Bacon were 10th cousins…10th!! So in Chart 423, they ought not to give it a second thought…half-4th cousins are just 1/1024 related…100% genealogical relatives, virtually 0% genetic relatives.

chart 424.png

118.12  The biggest red flag in genealogy? Married. Because, the previous paragraph notwithstanding, people today don’t generally marry people to whom they are related. Or they may be related so far back that it would be almost impossible to find out. Current custom restricts whom we call “in-laws” pretty much to parents, children, siblings…you’re more likely to hear “my wife’s cousin” than “my cousin-in-law,” right? It’s also current custom to assume families connected by marriage are 2 steps away from incest…but that’s wrong! Thus in the case of Chart 424not related.

118.13  But what should immediately strike you here is the oddity of calling one’s father’s sister’s son your “uncle” instead of your “1st cousin.” My guess is either that they made a mistake in stating it…or else the aunt is much older than her brother, making her son closer in age to an uncle than to a cousin for the questioner.

chart 425.png

118.14  This theme continues with Chart 425…as you can see, I have given last names to the families involved to keep it all straight…and here’s my answer to the questioner…

118.15  You have your Aunt A…your girlfriend has her Uncle D…and these 2 individuals married siblings, B and C. Now you, 1, and 2 are collectively Adams cousins…yes, their last name is Baker, but Adams is the family thru which you are related. Likewise, your girlfriend is a Collins cousin to 3 and 4. And of course 1, 2, 3, and 4 are Baker cousins to each other. You’re not a Collins cousin…your girlfriend is not an Adams cousin…and neither of you are Baker cousins…so you and her are not related, despite the fact that you have cousins that are cousins to her cousins. 

118.16  Perhaps it would be easier to understand if you look at it from the point of view of those cousins 1, 2, 3, and 4. They are Baker cousins because they have parents who are Baker siblings. 1 and 2 have another set of cousins on the “other side,” their mother’s side, the Adams family. Their Baker cousins 3 and 4 aren’t connected to the Adamses…they have Collins cousins on their “other side.”  Unless you have a parent  who is an only child, we all have 2 sets of unrelated cousins “on each side.” And it just so happens that in this case, members of those 2 “other sides” are getting together…but again, there is no blood relationship between the Adams and the Collins sides. 

118.17  Next week, neither sleep nor hail or dead of night nor slop nor mush…etc.


Copyright © 2013 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved



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