Don Williams
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Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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Human genealogy quickly spirals out of control
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   09/13/2002)

Prepare to be astounded.

O.K., that's a cheesy way to open a column, but it's more or less the way I've been introducing this subject at family gatherings and parties ever since I read "The Royal We." A writer named Steve Olson wrote the article for the May issue of "The Atlantic Monthly." For the complete text, type the phrase "?Atlantic Monthly' and Chang" into the search field of any good web-cruising program and the article should pop up, as it did just now for me. I first read the article several weeks ago, however, and it has changed the way I see at the world.

Olson's findings come down to this. We humans are more akin than most of us would have believed possible. In fact, most all inhabitants of the western world are likely related--in direct lines of descent--not only to William the Conqueror but also Muhammad, Nefertiti, Confucius, Charlemagne and millions of other common ancestors.

Olson was tipped off to this phenomenon by the research of a computer-genealogist named Mark Humphrys at the Dublin City University in Ireland. Humphrys, while researching his wife's ancestory, found that almost any reliable family tree eventually leads back to English royalty. Not only family trees of people born into the upper crust of London, New York, Dublin or Charleston, but most everyone else's family tree as well... "even such unlikely people as Hermann Gring and Daniel Boone," writes Olson. "Humphrys began to think that such descent was the rule rather than the exception in the Western world, even if relatively few people had the documents to demonstrate it."

It gets more amazing. According to computer models run by Joseph Chang, a statistician at Yale University, "the most recent common ancestor of every European today (except for recent immigrants to the Continent) was someone who lived in Europe in the surprisingly recent past--only about 600 years ago," writes Olson. "In other words, all Europeans alive today have among their ancestors the same man or woman who lived around 1400." And get this, based on Chang's models, 80 percent of the people alive about 1000 years ago were direct ancestors of every European living today, and most Americans also. The other 20 percent had no children, or they would be direct ancestors of most of us too. In reality Chang's model is not perfect. It assumes random mating patterns in European society, which obviously is not the case. Still, Olson implies that enough slippered feet have moved from servant quarters to royal chambers and back--and that enough canoes and ships have cruised the seas--to have blended the human genome pretty thoroughly.

Skeptical? So was I, at first. My mother's family has passed on some pretty reliable research showing the branches of our family tree reach back to Oliver Cromwell, Sequoyah and some early explorers named Nathaniel and Christopher Gist--one of whom pulled a young George Washington from a swollen river, thereby changing the course of history. It's unsettling to realize legions of others could make the same claims if they only knew. Plus, the implications for a geometric explosion of scoundrels and scalawags in the family tree has to be faced.

But think about it. When you start peering back into that hoary old family tree, its branches quickly get lost in a forest of family trees. "The number of our ancestors increases exponentially, not linearly," Olson writes. "These numbers are manageable in the first few generations--two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents--but they quickly spiral out of control. Go back forty generations, or about a thousand years, and each of us theoretically has more than a trillion direct ancestors--a figure that far exceeds the total number of human beings who have ever lived!"

Obviously, all of us share many, many ancestors in common. Because of global mobility and the crumbling of social strata, family trees have intertwined around the globe.

"Almost everyone in the New World must be descended from English royalty--even people of predominantly African or Native American ancestry, because of the long history of intermarriage in the Americas," Olson writes. "Similarly, everyone of European ancestry must descend from Muhammad. The line of descent for which records exist is through the daughter of the Emir of Seville, who is reported to have converted from Islam to Catholicism in about 1200. But many other, unrecorded descents must also exist...." In fact, writes Olson, "the most recent common ancestor of all six billion people on Earth today probably lived just a couple of thousand years ago. And not long before that the majority of the people on the planet were the direct ancestors of everyone alive today. Confucius, Nefertiti, and just about any other ancient historical figure who was even moderately prolific must today be counted among everyone's ancestors."

Be fruitful and multiply, and in a few thousand years you too could be counted among the mothers and fathers of the entire human race.