The shades of the ancestors

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanNov 1, 2010 11:20 AM


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Joe Pickrell of Genomes Unzipped kept digging and found something totally unexpected. Am I partly Jewish? An unexpected turn of events:

In my last post, I discussed how I used 23andMe data to test hypotheses about my ancestry. In particular, I was intrigued by Dienekes Pontikos’s result suggesting that I (and my colleague Vincent) might be partly Ashkenazi Jewish. Ultimately, however, I concluded that his algorithm was not properly modeling my southern European ancestry (inherited from one Italian grandparent), and that this was leading to a spurious result. I was wrong.

Go to the post for the scientific blow-by-blow, but I found this part very interesting:

As I was mulling over these sorts of issues, I sent the link to my previous analysis to a family member. I didn’t really expect this person to find it that interesting, but hey, you never know. I then got a phone call. I’ll summarize a couple days worth of moderate confusion, second-hand reports of conversations with distant relatives, and family intrigue with this: as it turns out, one of my great-grandparents was indeed a Polish Ashkenazi Jew who immigrated to the United States around the turn of the century. I, obviously, was completely unaware of this.

Does this change anything? I don't know, I haven't asked Joe. But here's an extreme case: Neo-Nazi Couple Find Out They're Jewish. This is a question more of psychology: what does it change that your ancestry is not exactly what you thought it was? After all, someone has Jewish ancestors, or they don't. Whether they know this is not relevant at all to that particular question of fact. But consider another scenario. What if you find out that your father is not your biological father? Does this change anything? Many people will assert that in the end it doesn't change the nature of the relationship in most fundamental ways, but the reality is that it does change some things in how you perceive yourself, and the nature of your place in the world. How you came to be you. A reader of mine, "Sandgropper", has some Australian Aborigine ancestry through one of his grandfathers. He is a white Australian, but if current anthropological models are correct he has lines of ancestry on the continent of Australia that go back nearly 50,000 years! Does this matter? On a fundamental level, no. But if you stand in the Roman Forum you're just among a bunch of stones arranged in some semblance of order. And yet it is so much more than that because of the history of the place. Your ancestry is the history of you before you were you. In a conventional thin liberal moral philosophy the history of those who gave rise to you in a biological or even cultural sense shouldn't matter. You are you, with certain fundamental rights, and universally human preferences and wants. But this thin and spare model of humanness is ahistorical. The reality is that humankind has long held dear the principle that who your ancestors are matters a great deal. Hunter-gatherer tribes and the Emperors of China both revered cults of ancestors. The Mormons baptize the ancestors of those alive today. Should it matter is going to be a very different thing from does it matter in many cases. Whether we explicitly acknowledge it in our laws, quite often we still behave as if there is an implicit contract between the generations alive today, and the generations gone by, and the generations to come.

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