Spoilers for last night’s episode of New Girl.
Sorry, George Michael, but you’ll notice I said “distant” cousin. So, actually you and the love of your life Maeby wouldn’t count in this situation. I’m taking more about the TV plots where our main character discovers the person they’re newly dating and, presumably, very excited about is a some sort of second or third-ish cousin. Think 30 Rock’s episode “The Head and The Hair.” You know, the episode where Liz is dating the incredibly hot, successful TV personality, but they have to immediately break up upon finding out that Liz’s Great-Aunt Dolly is The Hair’s Grandmother’s Cousin? I’m less surprised by the fact that Liz and the Hair were, at closest, second cousins than I am by the fact that the Hair had a framed photo of his Grandmother’s cousin in his apartment. Who is this Dolly Harling from Smithtown, and why is she so badass?
New Girl employed the same plot device last night when it was discovered that Jess and Robby are third cousins. Here’s my hot take: third cousins aren’t a thing. I mean, I understand that from a social perspective, sure, you could identify a person who is somehow vaguely related to you. I mean from a present day realistic and genetic standpoint, usually your third cousin is a stranger. Let’s break down the genetic thing first.
If someone is your third cousin, it means your grandparents were cousins. Or, put another way, your great-grandparents were siblings. Or, to make it blunt, you and your date have a great-great-grandparent in common. Did you feel squicked out? Don’t. Assuming you’re between twenty and thirty years old, the common ancestor between you and your date was born sometime after the Civil War but before the turn of the 20th century. And while time itself does not dilute the gene-pool, basic mating does. You and your third-cousin-lover share less than 1 percentage of your DNA. You think that’s still too much? You need it to be a cool 0 percent? Never hook up with your friends then. According to this article, you might have more genetic material in common with people whom you form relationships than those you are born into:
After analyzing almost 1.5 million markers of gene variations, the researchers found that pairs of friends had the same level of genetic relation as people did with a fourth cousin, or a great-great-great grandfather, which translates to about 1 percent of the human genome.
So all those best-friends-turned-lovers relationships just got weird.
But genetics are only half of the problem. If you and a close relative had both decided not to have children, society would not smile on your union just because it won’t produce an X-child. Humans have evolved to be unattracted to people with whom we are closely reared. Growing up with someone as a relative, especially in close proximity, shuts off the boner part of your brain for them. Meaning that losing an attraction for a person upon hearing they’re a distant relative is entirely socially conditioned, and not an evolutionary response. Which is also why these plots are unrealistic. I could not identify a single second-cousin of mine. Part of this is that I have twenty-five first cousins on just my dad’s side, so the “Relatives” portion of my brain is a little taxed. But part of it is the realities of modern day families. People move, families have hard times keeping relational ties over generations, sometimes grandmothers are boring and you just don’t give a fuck about their cousins (I’m not talking about you, Grandma Ceil. I would never, ever call you boring. I don’t care about your cousins because of what a stone-cold bitch you are). Most people just aren’t able to track their extended family that far out.
Now contrary to what you might be thinking, this is not a post where I encourage everyone to join my Kissing Cousins Are OK protest group. I don’t have that group, and I don’t want it. But I do want TV writers to stop with the easy cop out. Liz Lemon couldn’t possibly find happiness with a hot guy in season one, so there had to be something wrong with him. The “something wrong” is a distant relative. On New Girl last night Jess and Robby
seemed too good too be true didn’t have any chemistry weren’t Nick and Jess so they had to go. But instead of creating a real problem or actual conflict, they just happened to talk about a random relative living in Boston to break them up. The writers did that even though there were plenty of good reasons to break them up. It’s predictable and clichéd, which, for me at least, is significantly grosser than dating a stranger who kinda knows Great Aunt Gertrude.