The Oddness of Everything; the Entire Human Family Is the Product of a Lot of Incest-But Incest at What Author Bill Bryson Calls 'A Genetically Discreet Remove.'

By Will, George F. | Newsweek, May 23, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Oddness of Everything; the Entire Human Family Is the Product of a Lot of Incest-But Incest at What Author Bill Bryson Calls 'A Genetically Discreet Remove.'


Will, George F., Newsweek


Byline: George F. Will

Invited by the University of Miami to address members of the class of 2005, the columnist repaid this courtesy by telling them that even though they surely had showered before donning their caps and gowns, each of them had about a trillion bacteria feeding on the 10 billion flakes of skin each of us sheds in a day. If each 2005 graduate were disassembled into his or her constituent atoms, each graduation gown would contain nothing but atomic dust. But as currently assembled, this star dust--really: we are all residues of the Big Bang--is living stuff, capable of sublime emotions like love, patriotism and delight in defeating Florida State.

The body of every Miami graduate has about 10 thousand trillion cells, each containing a strand of DNA that, uncoiled, would extend about six feet. If that person's DNA were spliced into a single strand, it would extend 20 million kilometers--enough to stretch from Miami to Los Angeles and back 2,270 times.

So says Bill Bryson, author of the delightful "A Short History of Nearly Everything." According to him, everyone now alive contains some Shakespeare. That is, some of the physical stuff he was made of. And Julius Caesar's stuff, and Genghis Khan's and Charlemagne's. And Charlemagne's cook's. There are trillions of trillions of atoms in each of us, so lots--probably billions--of atoms have been recycled in each of us from Beethoven. In that sense we all are, as Bryson says, reincarnations.

Indeed, each member of Miami's class of 2005 is related to every other member and to--facts must be faced--every graduate of Florida State. It took two parents to produce each of us, and four people to produce our parents. If we look back eight generations, to Lincoln's day, Bryson says that more than 250 people contributed to the creation of each of us. Look back to Shakespeare's day, and we are directly descended from 16,384 ancestors. Look back 64 generations, to the era of the Roman Empire, and we have a thousand trillion ancestors.

But wait. A thousand trillion people is thousands of times more than the number of human beings who have ever lived. So everyone is the product of a lot of incest--but incest at what Bryson calls "a genetically discreet remove." This extended single family--humanity--inhabits the little planet Earth, whose continents are wandering.

Bryson says Europe and North America are moving away from each other at about the speed that a fingernail grows--about two yards in a normal human lifetime. The African continent is creeping northward and someday will squeeze the Mediterranean Sea out of existence and will shove up a chain of mountains as high as the Himalayas extending from Paris to Calcutta. …

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