Ancestry: taboos eroded by science

DNA, from Wired Magazine (so probably belonging to some design dude in Frisco)

Branding gets into the tiniest nooks and crannies, doesn’t it? Including our own biology.  For £340 you can buy the “Matriline and Y-Clan DNA Combo” pack from Oxford Ancestry Limited, run by Prof. Brian Sykes of Oxford University (whom you may remember from BBC’s Blood of the Vikings series). You send a DNA sample to their lab people and they can tell you what branches of humanity your ancestors mainly came from and give you a certificate to show your bored and possibly appalled friends. I’d actually really like to do it, I think it’s fascinating – and being married to someone of Eastern European background, I’d be fascinated to see our little boy’s ancestral mix. But a lot of people are quite wary of all this stuff. What interests me is how the taboo about exploring human ancestry is being broken down, apparently by the very existence of the scientific ability to do it now. Radio 4 made interesting listening on this last week: Radio 4 In Our Own Image – Evolving Humanity.

I’ve always been quite interested in human origins but for a long time, it wasn’t much debated or discussed in polite society. The disaster of early 20th Century flirtation with eugenics, epitomised (but not exclusively owned) by the Nazi “racial state”, cast a huge taboo-shaped shadow over this whole area. People agreed, for the greater good, that exploring human differences was just not healthy, with the inevitable popular misunderstandings of any science done potentially feeding racist agendas. So I suppose it must have been a tough time, for 40 or 50 years, to be an anthrozoologist, if that’s the term, piecing together the jigsaw of what our ancestors were up to.

Now we have books like Out of Eden and the Origins of the British by Prof. Stephen Oppenheimer, based on new DNE evidence as well as the archaeology and linguistics we were previously reliant upon. His work is captured nicely in this site, where you can click on a timeline showing the broad patterns of how the world was peopled: The Bradshaw Foundation: Human Journey. Meanwhile National Geographic is carrying out something called the Human Genographic Project around the world, which has attracted controversy. Its aim is to map the ancestry of the whole of humanity using DNA. NG have been particularly keen to gather DNA from remote groups with little outside contact, for obvious reasons of anthropological interest. But it’s been condemned by some as exploitative and potentially damaging these cultures through exposing them to a Western scientific understanding of themselves.

But using DNA to trace your ancestry is going to be huge business, I feel. Most people are fascinated to link themselves to ancestors, whether through the human interest angle taken by programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? or the tribal past explored by programmes like A History of Ancient Britain with the ubiquitous, neolithically-maned Neil Oliver. But tv and books can only tell you generalities about what happened to most people, the big picture stuff. What will have huge appeal, as more and more people become aware of services like Oxford Ancestry Ltd, is that it is personalised – it is uniquely you, your DNA. It carries tiny bits of the stories of each and every ancestor you have had. Quite how to understand all the information they give you may be another matter.

I am glad science is finding a way around this taboo. And so far, the results have already shown our greater understanding should actually bring people together rather than divide them. Realising how recently our entire species was contained on the continent of Africa brings humanity closer. By exploding many of our myths about national origins – for example showing that Anglo-Saxon invaders provide only about 5 per cent of the gene pool in England – they are doing us a service. The old grand assumptions about unique national origins and national destiny weren’t so great for inter-ethnic relations – my own home province of Northern Ireland being a prime example of how such beliefs can poison relations.

The new science is showing is how intermixed we all are – and how we can expect to be even more so in the future. A taboo then that we can let ourselves lose, as long as we are careful to remember the real lessons of the eugenicist and Nazi nightmare: not to stop scientific enquiry, but to regard equal respect for our fellow people and their human rights as overriding and non-negotiable.

Did I mention I am descended from generations of Yorkshire hat makers, among others? But also from people who crossed the Red Sea …

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About Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.
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