There’s a special circle of American social hell reserved for those who flagrantly engage in identity politics. Still smarting from memories of Bernhard Goetz, Tawana Brawley, and the Crown Heights riots, many Americans who came of age in the last two decades of the century have little patience with the open politicization of racial and ethnic issues.
Like it or not, identity politics might be on the cusp of a global comeback. The good news: it won’t have anything to do with race-baiting demagogues like Al Sharpton and David Duke. The bad news: it’ll be the objective, hard result of new findings in human population genetics that speak revisionist truth to the foundational myths of nations and individuals alike.
Fortunately, this discipline of science has little to say about important social or psychological differences between ethnic groups and races: as a result, access to new information about the genetic landscape of humanity has not prompted a spooky stir of neo-eugenics. However, in the vein of a paternity or pedigree test, new techniques associated with the cheap sequencing and crowdsourcing of genetic information have made it possible to ascertain the origins of ethnic groups and their relatedness to others.
By and large, genetic genealogy has been kind to the mainstream: population genetic findings are rarely shocking, and their controversy is most often limited to the academic realm. But new findings have the potential to either reinforce or challenge differences between neighboring populations that have historically defined themselves in opposition to each other.
A body of Y-DNA, autosomal clustering, and genetic distance findings have vindicated the sentiments of nationalistic Germans and Poles who can now point to science as evidence that they’re as sharply different as European neighbors can be. On the other hand, the same studies have failed to distinguish between Spaniards and Portuguese, no matter how hard they’ve tried.
As for foundational myths? Hungarians today claim descent from the Magyars, the Uralic tribe with roots in north-central Asia who lent them their quirky, consonant-heavy language. Similarly, the national identity of Turkey is based upon the notion of common descent from Turkic nomads of the Asian steppe. However, as their markedly Caucasian features would suggest, both groups measure in at a maximum of 10% East Asian ancestry and descend primarily from locals – hardly the glorious stuff of historical myth.
To their great credit, human population geneticists have also debunked some of the most persistent, pernicious myths about human population origins and history. Since the early twentieth century, Nordic supremacists have sought to claim that the originators of the Indo-European language family (by extension, the forerunners of organized European civilization) were blond-haired, blue-eyed, chiseled, and Northern European. Through the resolution of genetic components in European populations, recent findings seem to indicate that the first Indo-Europeans were in fact Middle Easterners. Equally problematic, many members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints believe that the indigenous peoples of the Americas are the descendants of Jews from Jerusalem: with 100% confidence, studies have proven the mainstream line of archaeologists – that Native Americans are descended from Siberians, rather than Semites.
Conversely, certain findings in the body of recent population genetics studies have the potential to complicate the politics of ethnic identity and racial ideology. While not published officially, the results of genetic tests on the lines of Adolf Hitler and King Tutankhamen are claimed to be staggeringly ironic: Hitler is supposedly a member of the Y-haplogroup most common in Egypt, while Tut is a member of the group most common in Austria.
Then there’s the “I’m more ___________ than you” issue. Over the course of African-American issue, tension has surfaced between darker- and fairer-skinned individuals over the value of being “blacker than you.” Similar purity dynamics underlie relations within the age-old Native American and WASP communities. For better or worse, they can now be quantified. Factually, Oprah Winfrey is more African than Skip Gates – take it as you will.
While it’s difficult to grasp just how molecules can provoke international, politically-charged questions of identity, imagine the case of the world’s most storied diaspora population: the Jews. Beginning in the late 1990s, the expansive and controversial field of Jewish population genetics has expanded from its original place as a subfield of medical genetics – weighing in pointedly on some of Jewish identity’s most pressing questions.
Contrary to the semi-popular – and often anti-Semitic – belief, European Jews are mostly not descended from the Khazars, an Asian-originated steppe people whose royal class converted to Judaism 1,200 years ago. As any reasonable observer could guess, Jews are not very Asian at all: 1 to 2 percent, according to the latest genetic analyses. More fundamentally, most Jewish groups around Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East share a strong genetic affinity to the northern Middle East – confirming the hypothesis that Jewish identity has persisted for the past two millennia as far more than simply a religious phenomenon.
However, a battery of new findings places European Jews somewhere in the genetic space between Italians and Palestinians, begging the question of whether a number can be put on the Jewish people’s authentic Jewishness. Critics of Zionism have even raised the startling possibility that Palestinians might be more genetically Jewish than self-identified Jews themselves, implying that Israel’s statehood might be based on faulty, unscientific myths.
To date, the answer is unclear (for reasons of Arab admixture in the Palestinian population, I would lean against it) – but a more important question remains: does it matter? Do the scientific facts of national identity matter to politics, or is culture too well-entrenched for quantitative genetics to shake? Watch for more material. Far from the aegis of mainstream political coverage, a veritable army of well-studied genetic anthropology bloggers are asking these questions every day.
If you’re interested in the next global wave of identity politics, I’d suggest tuning in.