Eloquent JavaScript is a wonderful resource for learning JavaScript. If you are currently teaching yourself JavaScript, you should check it out. Seriously.

However, not everything in there is easy to understand on the first go around. In chapter 5, the author introduces the concept of recursive programming. Recursion is a difficult concept to grasp at first, but can be a vitally useful tool for any programmer. As an example of recursion, the author presents us with a toy problem that deals with parsing a family tree to calculate the amount of shared DNA between two individuals. This blog post is an explanation/tutorial that breaks down this problem and aims to help you understand it a bit better. You should read through chapter 5 first, and if you can’t fully understand how the sharedDNA recursion example is working, then this will (hopefully) help you out :)

First, you can head over to the code sandbox for Eloquent JavaScript. Here, you can select chapter 5: higher-order functions and then you can play around with the code. Basically, this loads the objects and functions for the chapter. It’s cool to work in this “sandbox”, but I actually find it easier to work locally on your computer. It will also help us learn how to do this stuff in a more real-world environment.

On the sandbox page, download the .zip file that contains the code for chapter 5. Unzip it by double clicking it and opening it.

Note: This tutorial is based on the 2nd edition of the book. If the files aren’t the same as I describe them or there’s a new version of the book, it’s possible that the content has been updated or revised. You can download the files I used to write this tutorial from my github.

Okay, in this unzipped folder we have the following files:

├── code
│   ├── ancestry.js
│   ├── chapter
│   │   └── 05_higher_order.js
│   ├── intro.js
│   └── load.js
├── index.html
└── run_with_node.js

Open up index.html in a text editor. Make sure it is a plain-text editor, not a rich-text editor. Examples of plain-text editors are Sublime Text, Atom, and TextMate. You’ll see that this file looks like this:

<!doctype html>
<script src="code/ancestry.js"></script>
<script src="code/chapter/05_higher_order.js"></script>
<script src="code/intro.js"></script>

var ph = byName["Philibert Haverbeke"];
console.log(reduceAncestors(ph, sharedDNA, 0) / 4);

When you open this file in a browser, the browser will load those three javascript files linked in the first three script tags. Then, the browser will load the javascript written between the <body> and <script> tags. So, in this case, the variable ph is assigned the person object for Philibert Haverbeke. Then, the browser will console.log the result of reduceAncestors(ph, sharedDNA, 0) / 4. This dude, Philibert Haverbeke, whose object is referenced by the variable ph, is the author’s grandfather. So what whatever number we get from reduceAncestors(ph, sharedDNA, 0), will be the shared DNA for his grandfather. Hence, we divide that number by 4 (two generations away, each generation cuts the DNA by half) and we should have our answer for the author himself.

Okay, so if we open index.html in Chrome (or any web browser, but really, just use Chrome!), Chrome will load the javascript files, then log the result from console.log(reduceAncestors(ph, sharedDNA, 0) / 4);. Looks like it is 0.00048828125. In Chrome, to see the console and what it logs out, press option + command + J and make sure you’ve selected the ‘Console’ tab. Here, you can see what the console is logging and also interact with the environment. If you type in ancestry[0].name and hit Enter, it should return the name of the first person in the ancestry array. You can do this because you are interacting with the console in the environment where all those javascript files were loaded.

Now let’s take a look at the files it’s loading. Take a look at ancestry.js. This defines an array (in JSON format) called ANCESTRY_FILE which contains a bunch of person objects. Importantly, each person object has name, mother and father properties (among other properties). The value of each of these three properties is a string (the correspoding names).

Cool, so this is how our browser has access to the ANCESTRY_FILE array. Let’s look at the 05_higher_order.js file now. The first line parses the ANCESTRY_FILE JSON and creates an array of the data called ancestry.

The next lines are:

var byName = {};
ancestry.forEach(function(person) {
  byName[person.name] = person;

This creates an object called byName, and populates it with a property for each person in ancestry. Each property’s key is a string of the person’s name. Each value is that person’s person object. This allows us to access someone’s person object by their name. This is useful since we will have to calculate DNA based on someone’s mother and father. We can access the name of someone’s mother by looking in his/her person object for the "mother" property, which will look like "mother": "Mother's Name". Then we can use the "Mother's Name" string and acccess the mother’s person object in byName. Repeat for the mother’s mother, and so on and so on.

If you notice in 05_higher_order.js, the byName function is defined twice. You can delete the second one near the bottom. After deleting it, save the file, and refresh the index.html in the browser. It should still log the correct result (0.00048828125).

The average function in this file is also unnecessary here since it was used for other examples in this chapter. Delete it, save the file, refresh the page, and make sure it still logs the correct result.

Now, the rest of the file defines the reduceAncestors and sharedDNA functions. We’ll get to them in a minute. First, let’s think about how the browser knows what to run, since these are just the definitions of the functions. Nowhere in this file is there a call to execute either of these functions. Remember how the index.html had a few lines of script that it was running? Well, this is the code that is getting executed when you load or refresh index.html in the browser:

var ph = byName["Philibert Haverbeke"];
console.log(reduceAncestors(ph, sharedDNA, 0) / 4);

For me, it’s easier when I can see everything together, so copy the javascript code here and paste it at the end of the 05_higher_order.js. Then, delete this code from index.html. Save both the index.html and 05_higher_order.js files and refresh the page in the browser. You should still see the 0.00048828125 logged to the console. This is because the console.log(reduceAncestors(ph, sharedDNA, 0) / 4); is still being executed, it’s just now located in the same file (05_higher_order.js) as the function defintions.

Okay, now let’s take a look at the 05_higher_order.js file. The ph variable is being assigned the person object for Philibert Haverbeke. Then it’s calling the reduceAncestors function, and passing in this person object along with the sharedDNA function. We provide 0 as a default value in case there is a mother or father that is listed in someone’s person object but is not part of the dataset (so we wouldn’t be able to find out if they share DNA with the old dude).

Okay, now let’s dig in and figure out what’s going on here. First, let’s add some console.log statements to the sharedDNA function to try and help us understand what’s going on. Add to the sharedDNA function so that it looks like this:

function sharedDNA(person, fromMother, fromFather) {
  if (person.name == "Pauwels van Haverbeke") {
    console.log("landed on Pauwels");
    return 1;
  } else {
    console.log("current person: " + person.name);
    console.log("from Mother: " + fromMother);
    console.log("from Father: " + fromFather);
    return (fromMother + fromFather) / 2;

Note here I changed the syntax a bit with the brackets around the if/else clause by using brackets for each condition, and putting the else on the same line as the end bracket. Might be better, might just be personal preference. I think it’s easier to read.

Now we will know when the sharedDNA function is called with Pauwels, the really old dude with whom we’re comparing DNA. However, we only get to Pauwels at the very end of traversing the family tree, so most of the time that sharedDNA is called, the person with whom we’re querying is not Pauwels. So, in the else clause, I log the name of the person with whom we’re querying, and also I log the fromMother and fromFather parameters. Now, if you look in the valueFor function within the reduceAncestors function, it is calling this sharedDNA function with the statement return f(person, valueFor(byName[person.mother]), valueFor(byName[person.father])). f is just the second parameter of reduceAncestors, which is sharedDNA since that’s what we originally pass in with the call console.log(reduceAncestors(ph, sharedDNA, 0) / 4);.

So when we console.log the fromMother parameter, we’re actually logging what was passed in to this parameter, which as you can see from return f(person, valueFor(byName[person.mother]), valueFor(byName[person.father])) is actually another call to valueFor, this time passing in the mother’s person object. So, this is the recursive aspect of this problem!

What I think gets a bit confusing is how sharedDNA can return a number. It seems like it just keeps retruning people, right? Well, now that we have the console.log statements, let’s try out some easy examples and see what happens at each step.

Comment out the original calls to these function, so that the bottom of the file looks like:

// var ph = byName["Philibert Haverbeke"];
// console.log(reduceAncestors(ph, sharedDNA, 0) / 4);

If you save the file and refresh the page in the browser, there should be nothing logged to the console, because we haven’t called anything. Let’s try out another, simpler call to reduceAncestors. Put the following code at the end of the file:

var pauwels = byName["Pauwels van Haverbeke"];
console.log(reduceAncestors(pauwels, sharedDNA, 0));

Okay, so here we’re pulling out the person object for Pauwels, the really old dude! Then, we are going to log the result of calling reduceAncestors with Pauwels, the sharedDNA function (but now complete with console.log statements!), and the default of 0 if we get to someone who is not in the data set. Notice we’re no longer dividing by 4, because we don’t have the extra step of the person with whom we’re querying being a grandson of the person in the dataset. The good thing: we already know the answer to question “How much DNA does Pauwels share with Pauwels?” 100%! So, 1.

Now, before running this code (by refreshing the browser), let’s try and guess what is going to happen. We call reduceAncestors, which defines the function valueFor, but doesn’t yet call it. Then, it does call it with valueFor(person). Since person in this case is not null, we will head into the else clause. Now we call return f(person, valueFor(byName[person.mother]), valueFor(byName[person.father])). f is sharedDNA. Pauwel’s mother is null and his father is N. van Haverbeke. So, the call then becomes:

return sharedDNA({"Pauwel's": object}, valueFor(byName[null]), valueFor(byName["N. van Haverbeke"]));

Now, sharedDNA wants to return you your answer, but it needs to wait for valueFor to return for the second and third paramters. So what will those return? Well, since Pauwel’s father is not in the ancestry array, the expression byName["N. van Haverbeke"] will evaluate to null, as will byName[null]. So both parameters will be valueFor(null). Then, the if statement in these two calls to valueFor,

if (person == null) {
      return defaultValue;

will evaluate to true, and the return values will each be defaultValue (which is 0, which we passed in at the original call to reduceAncestors). Now, the interpreter can continue with the call to sharedDNA, yet with the returned values it now looks like this:

return sharedDNA({"Pauwel's": object}, 0, 0);

Now we head into the sharedDNA function, and get to:

if (person.name == "Pauwels van Haverbeke") {
    console.log("Landed on Pauwels");
    return 1;

In this case, yes! It’s true, so we will log "landed on Pauwels" and return 1. This returned value of 1 is returned to the call of return valueFor(pauwels) within reduceAncestors, so our original call to reduceAncestors returns 1. Thus, our original statement of console.log(reduceAncestors(pauwels, sharedDNA, 0)); will log 1 to the console.

Make sure the file is saved, refresh the browser, and make sure this worked.

Okay, so let’s do one more example. I looked in the ancestor array and found a child of Pauwels, named “Lieven van Haverbeke”. A child will share 1/2 of his/her (is Lieven a guy or a girl???) DNA with Pauwel, so we should get 0.5 as our final return result. Comment out the calls from before like so:

// var pauwels = byName["Pauwels van Haverbeke"];
// console.log(reduceAncestors(pauwels, sharedDNA, 0));

And add this to the bottom of the file:

var pauwelsChild = byName["Lieven van Haverbeke"];
console.log(reduceAncestors(pauwelsChild, sharedDNA, 0));

Now, save the file, refresh the browser and check out the console. It should look like this:

current person: Lievijne Jans
from Mother: 0
from Father: 0
landed on Pauwels
current person: Lieven van Haverbeke
from Mother: 0
from Father: 1

I’ll leave it to you to go through it step by step, but hopefully it’s getting clearer. Lieven is the person we call the original function with. So, one of the last calls to return is this:

return sharedDNA({"Lieven's": object}, valueFor(byName[person.mother]), valueFor(byName[person.father]));

By filling it in with Lieven’s mother and father information, this becomes:

return sharedDNA({"Lieven's": object}, valueFor(byName["Lievijne Jans"]), valueFor(byName["Pauwels van Haverbeke"]));

We know valueFor(byName["Pauwels van Haverbeke"]) returns 1. valueFor(byName["Lievijne Jans"]) will call sharedDNA with Lievijne’s mother and father, neither of whom are in the dataset. So they are null and each of those two calls will return 0, and be aggregated by sharedDNA into a return of (0 + 0) / 2, which is 0. So, it becomes sharedDNA({"Lieven's": object}, 0, 1) and eventually returns (0 + 1) / 2;, or 0.5.

Basically, sharedDNA waits for the calls to valueFor for mother and father to return. But remember, valueFor is calling sharedDNA since that’s the function we passed in. So, in essence, sharedDNA waits for itself to evaulate each parent, which in turn needs to evaulate each parent. This creates a tree of calls, until it hits null (a family member not in the data set) or Pauwels, and returns 0 or 1. Then, the 0 or 1 is returned back, and the sharedDNA call from which it came will evaluate. As the outermost tree “branches” start returning 0 or 1, they are combining numbers together (and dividing by 2). Hence, a 1 from Pauwels keeps geting diluted by 1/2. Hence, you have smaller and smaller numbers.

It’s still hard sometimes to precisely wrap my head around recursion. I decided to write this explanation out fully and it really helped me to think about. Recursion is just simply not how our brains are wired to think, and so it takes time and practice. My general advice in a situation like this is to play around with console.log to write out variables at certain points in the execution of the code. There are more elegant ways of doing this using debugger statements with Chrome’s console, but I was having trouble with it and this method works just fine.

My other general suggestion is to think about the base case (in this example, Pauwels), and then work your way up to understanding the more complicated cases that need to make a ton of recursive calls before returning.

Hope this helped!