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The Sciences

Iceland, Elves & Inbreeding

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMarch 25, 2009 2:11 PM

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There's a critique up of Michael Lewis' entertaining if somewhat less than illuminating (compared to the piece in The New Yorker) profile of the Icelandic financial meltdown. No surprise that Lewis spun here and there to extract more entertainment out of the straight story, but I have to take objection to a few points:

5. "Icelanders are among the most inbred human beings on earth -- geneticists often use them for research." Now this is insulting. Icelanders' DNA shows their roots to be a healthy mix between Nordic Y chromosomes and X chromosomes from the British Isles. The reason genetic-research company deCODE uses Icelandic genes for its research is not because the codes are so homogeneous, but because the population has kept excellent genealogical records dating back thousands of years.

What the author means is that the ancestors were males from Scandinavia and females from the British Isles. One can vary the proportions, but the skew is in the direction suggested above. But even if all the female ancestors of Icelanders were British and all the male ancestors Nordic, only 2/3 of the X chromosomes would derive from the British population. Males carry an X as well. That's the pedantic point. The more substantive one is the idea that because an ancestral population originally had diverse origins (in this case, at settlement), the descendant population could therefore never be inbred by definition. Actually there is some evidence that Icelanders are a touch inbred, though that just means that they have a low longer term effective population and little gene flow with other groups. By analogy, consider a set of biracial siblings. If the brothers and sisters started mating and produced inbred offspring, who themselves bred with each other, the resultant population would become progressively more inbred despite their diverse racial origins. That's what inbreeding does; it cranks down effective population and starts to increase the power of drift so much that it removes a lot of the genetic variation. If human races aren't that different, well, you aren't starting from very different places in the race to get inbred, right?

8. The nation has to deal with "elves -- in whom some large number of Icelanders, steeped long and thoroughly in their rich folkloric culture, sincerely believe." Alcoa, an aluminum-smelting multinational with operations outside of Reykjavík, had to "defer to a government expert to scour the enclosed plant site and certify that no elves were on or under it."

Right. I've heard the elf thing mentioned in tired travel articles (normally wedged between paragraphs on the beauty of waterfalls and tips for eating ram testicles), but I personally know no one on this island who believes in elves. Not one. As for Alcoa, their rep believes Lewis is likely referring to a law regarding environmental-impact assessments. The assessment includes an archaeological survey to ensure no important artifacts or ruins are destroyed, and the site's history is also surveyed to see if it was ever named in any Icelandic folklore. And yes, some of that folklore involves elves. But if you're going to introduce the notion that some kind of Ministry of Elf Inspection exists within the ranks of the Icelandic government, you might as well also note that we take the Hogwart's Express to the office every day.

If there are no Icelanders who believe in elves then they're a rather mischievous people, as I've heard several BBC reports over the years interviewing Icelanders with ideas about the "Little People" or whatever they call them. Perhaps they were playing a joke on the correspondent, as that has been known to happen to journalists and anthropologists when they meet isolated peoples. In any case I watched an Icelandic film several years ago which seemed to assume that some rural folk are quite superstitious to the point where one would expect that they believe in elves. Also, there's survey data which ascertains the proportion of Icelanders who believe in Elves. Unless Icelanders are liars a significantly greater share than 0 believe in elves. This is a serious problem with appealing too much to personal experience. Sometimes when I argue with people offering anecdotes I just make something up to refute their argument, at which point my interlocutor is dumbfounded, and I just admit I made up the anecdote.

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