Update: This article has now been adapted as a video essay.
All of this, everything we know, is magnificently improbable.
The fact that yourself and your loved ones have, by some exponential miracle, overlapped on a completely random cosmic timeline to be both present and alive on Earth at the same point of time is nothing short of astonishing. That they’re here is incredible, that you’re here is incredible, and the fact that you both exist together at the same time is extremely improbable and unlikely.
Your ancestors and their ancestors have passed down the torch of life to 7,500 generations of modern humans, meaning you are the direct descendant of at least 15,000 people who met, fell in love, had affairs, struggled desperately, and ultimately raised or at least gave birth to everyone in your family tree.
My family recently recovered an ancient photograph from the late 1890’s of my great-great-grandparents. They’re sitting side-by-side, staring straight at the camera. Neither is smiling: his face is guarded and solemn, like he was photographed against his will, while hers is gentler, more sad than tense.
And yet, despite the fact that only three generations separates us, I know absolutely nothing about my grandfather’s grandparents other than that they lived in a small Russian town called Minsk (modern day Belarus) and were somewhat religious.
For some reason, being able to see their faces makes me able to actually conceive of them as real people, instead of the vague and empty concept that existed before.
Finding this photograph not only spurred a sense of connection with my great-great grandparents, but with every ancestor whose face I will never see, whose story I will never know. There is so much you don’t know about every person in your bloodline, so many unanswered questions. But you can only conceive of who these people were and what their lives were like for about four or five generations at most before names are lost and everything inevitably becomes a blur.
This is how it’s been for thousands of years—every succeeding generation losing stories and records of its family history along the way, ancestors remembered and forgotten until everything before a certain year just turns into one giant, unanswerable question mark. Eventually you have no record or knowledge of anyone that came before your great-great-grandmother, and the complex stories of your 15,000 kin are silenced, their book forever closed.
And so the torch is passed from one generation to the next, five or six generations remembered at a time, before another baby is born and the fifth preceding generation is obscured by new life, its shaky legend dropped to make room for a new slate. This game of memory telephone has been played for thousands of years until it was finally relayed to you one night at the dinner table, when you were told family legends of the kind grandfather you never met or the time your great-grandmother walked across Europe with the gypsies to escape persecution.
One day, if it hasn’t happened already, you may be fortunate enough to pass on stories about yourself and your grandparents to your kin.
But maybe you won’t have to. Maybe in four hundred years from now, your lineage will be able to search your name on some evolved version of the internet and find a grainy video of you doing the Ice Bucket Challenge—shouting and cursing as you’re doused in a bucket of ice water—alongside an archive of every inane Tweet and angry YouTube comment you made until the day you died.
Or perhaps technology doesn’t get that far, and you will be as much a mystery to your descendants as your ancestors are to you.
Either way, all of this musing represents a fixation on our biological families, ancestors that share portions of our biological makeup. This is probably the most immediately enticing group to think about, as they obviously have the most relevance in contributing to who we are.
But an argument can be made that societal conditioning blinds us from the true reality that every human who’s ever lived is part of our larger extended family — all 107 billion of them. In this context, it almost seems crude to only fixate on the group of humans whose saliva slightly resembles our own, when the human experience has been shared across the millennia by 107 billion others who led lives just as complicated, miraculous, confusing, tragic, and beautiful as our own.
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