There’s so many different worlds
So many different suns
And we have just one world
But we live in different ones
— Mark Knopfler, Brothers in Arms
I had the above T-shirt custom-made a couple of weeks ago, which reads “you are my cousin” in several languages. I can’t say for certain whether all of the translations are 100% accurate, but I tried to include a diverse range of languages, including the most commonly spoken ones (and Hmong; I just had to include Hmong). I’ve yet to wear it in public, but I am curious whether people will ask me about it. My hope is that it will get people to think a little about human diversity, similarity, difference, and how we are all related.
Of course, I’m playing fast and loose with terminology here, using ‘cousin’ in a very broad evolutionary sense. From an evolutionary perspective, genetic ties (or ‘blood’) are considered important since they indicate degree of shared genetic material. However, not every society sees family relations in the same way, which is a testament to the power of culture.
Anthropologists have a long history of studying the various ways that different cultures categorize who is considered ‘family,’ or marriageable or not (ex., see Matthew Bradley’s site Consanguinity and Affinity). For example, some societies refer to aunts and uncles as ‘mother’ or ‘father.’ There are also many examples of people who are not genetic relatives being considered as kin (or something very close to kin), such as a mother-in-law, or ‘brothers in arms.’ Adopted family and step-relatives are just as important and legitimate as family based on genetic ties. And – as I understand things – there is even a phenomenon of sisterhood that depends on how well a pair of pants fit.
Sometimes these things are fuzzy, illustrating that these rules are not set in stone. The anthropologist David Schneider noted that in the United States, there is a range of opinions as to whether a cousin’s spouse is also considered to be a cousin or even a relative at all (p. 98).
But to get back to the evolutionary perspective, all humans are ‘cousins’ in the sense that we share a common ancestor. If we trace my family tree and your family tree far back enough, it is a mathematical certainty that we will encounter an ancestor whom we both share. We probably won’t find one two or three generations back, but eventually we will get there no matter how differ in appearance or ideology.
For example, in 2008 genealogists discovered that Barack Obama and George W. Bush were actually 10th cousins, and that their last common ancestor was Samuel Hinkley of Cape Cod, who died in 1662. And we can go back even further. The geneticist Carlos Bustamante estimated that for every person on earth, the last common ancestor of the Y chromosome probably lived between 120,000 and 156,000 years ago, while the last common mitochondrial DNA ancestor lived between 99,000 and 148,000 years ago.
If we want to take this even further, we can say that all living things are ‘cousins’ because they also share ancestry. Again, I’m using the word loosely. However, while I may be your cousin in an abstract way, this doesn’t mean you’re likely to invite me to your family reunion. And being labeled ‘cousin’ or ‘family’ is no panacea for preventing conflict. Certainly, people can disagree with, or even hate, family members while having much more in common with unrelated friends. But the larger point is that all people are similar and different to each other simultaneously. Which one we focus on – the similarities or the differences – is a matter of emphasis. I’ve used this quote by Matt Ridley before, but it seems appropriate here:
“Similarity is the shadow of difference. Two things are similar by virtue of their differences from another; or different by one’s similarity to a third. So it is with individuals. A short man is different from a tall man, but two men seem similar if contrasted with a woman. So it is with species. A man and a woman may be very different, but by comparison with a chimpanzee, it is their similarities that strike the eye – the hairless skin, the upright stance, the prominent nose. A chimpanzee, in turn, is similar to a human being when contrasted with a dog; the face, the hands, the 32 teeth, and so on. And a dog is like a person to the extent that both are unlike a fish. Difference is the shadow of similarity.” (2003: 7)
We have the ability to throw a mental ‘switch’ that allows us to go back and forth between seeing similarity or difference, and sometimes one speaks louder to us than the other. In April, when a boat carrying Syrians and North Africans disintegrated off the coast of Rhodes, several local people rushed to the water to help bring them ashore, at risk to their own safety. The rescue was not easy, as the fragile boat quickly fell apart, battered by rough waters and sharp rocks, and at least three people drowned. In describing why they tried to rescue complete strangers (and who were technically entering the country illegally), one Greek fisherman simply said, “They are souls, like us.” At least in this instance, commonality won the day. As a tribute to her Greek rescuer, one Eritrean woman even named her son, born just three days after the ordeal, ‘Antonis.’
At other times, the emphasis is on difference. One British columnist caused controversy in April when she wrote that she preferred gunships to rescue boats to stop African and Syrian migrants from crossing the Mediterranean to get to better conditions in Europe, even comparing them to cockroaches. And then there were the horrible, racially motivated murders in South Carolina just days ago. And on it goes.
By considering another person, even an anonymous stranger, as a ‘cousin’ there comes an accompanying shift in mental categorizations. For example, when two Hmong people meet for the first time, very often one of the first things they do is talk about their clan, their families, and who they might know in common. Once these hurdles are overcome, then they ain’t strangers anymore and there is the potential for the beginning of a bond.
I am curious as to what response, if any, this shirt will get. Perhaps it will do a tiny bit of good in helping a few people see similarity first.