Hope is in our DNA


With the fate of the world hanging in the balance I naturally thought it would be a good idea to offer my worried readers a moment of distraction regarding our shared ancestry; that is to say, the shared ancestry of the human race. And if anyone out there wants to apply that to the upcoming Very Important Moment (VIM) in history, the U.S. election on Nov. 8, then so be it.

(Yes, my friends in the United States of America, it is the future of all of us on the face of the Earth you are about to determine, not just your own.)

The science of genetics has reached the point now where it is fairly inexpensive to have a basic DNA test done showing where in the world your ancestors lived. By “fairly recent” I mean the test results don’t go back millions of years to Lucy and the Rift Valley in Africa, or the otherwise actual moment of creation; and, after all, there has been a lot of coming and going, ebbing and flowing, and mixing of our species since then. But they do go back thousands of years.

This past summer one of my daughters brought it to my attention that a company called AncestryDNA was offering such a DNA test at a price even I could afford. She said many people had already taken advantage of it, and to their surprise discovered their ancestry was far more racially diverse than they ever imagined.

For example, many people in the U.S. and Canada have learned they have a high proportion of indigenous North American ancestry.

My daughter made the good and timely point that in this time of growing nationalism, racial hatred and divisiveness the test was a way of showing how much human beings are related to each other – that we are all are members of the human family.

Meanwhile, there were personal reasons why I was interested in finding out whatever I could about my family’s ancestry. My mother and father were both adopted. Though my 95-year-old mother now has considerable knowledge of her ancestry, my father, who passed away in 1970 did not.

In appearance my father was most obviously white European. His birth surname, Windsor, is about as English as can be. But his given name, Frankland, suggested the possibility of a connection with France, literally, the land of the Franks.

The Franks were a Germanic, or Gothic tribe, one of many that overran the Roman Empire when it finally collapsed 1,500 years ago.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I got my DNA test results recently via email, and somewhat to my disappointment, I confess, they indicate 79 percent of my DNA is representative of someone with ancestral roots in “Great Britain.” That is to say, England, Scotland and Wales.  I’m also genetically 12 percent Irish.

Now, don’t get me wrong, when I mention “disappointment” I have nothing against the English, Scottish, or Irish. Some of my best friends now and over the years have been from the British Isles, or rooted in them. Hello, Stuart.

And, if truth be known, the genetics of the human population of the British Isles before the modern age is anything but boring. One could even say it’s multicultural.

As AncestryDNA explains in a brief history of Great Britain, there were many migrations and invasions of various nationalities to the British Isles over the course of history and pre-history. About 12,000 years ago in the late stages of the Ice Age, Neolithic people were able to reach them on foot. They were the same people who built Stonehenge, a remarkable achievement for what must have become a quite sophisticated culture, with a keen sense of the spiritual dimension of life, and a special interest in tracking the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Beginning 2,500 B.C. people we now refer to as Celtic reached Britain and became dominant there, as they did in most of Europe until the rise of the Roman Empire. Roman Legions invaded and began the conquest of Britain in 43 A.D. They didn’t conquer all of what they called Britannia: the ancient Scots and Picts were too much for the over-stretched legions; instead, they built walls in hopes of keeping them out of Britannia. They didn’t even bother trying to conquer Ireland.

The Roman legions started withdrawing early in the 5th Century to defend the declining empire elsewhere, leaving the Romanized Celtic inhabitants of Britain to their fate. Several Germanic tribes, Angles, Saxons and Jutes took advantage of the opportunity. Those invaders gradually drove the Celts into areas like Wales, where Gallic, the Celtic language, is still spoken. The legends of a great Celtic leader, King Arthur, are rooted in the conflicts of that period. The Angles gave their name to England, literally, Angleland. Then the Vikings, or Norsemen, overran much of Eastern England in the 9th Century. Their territory was known as The Danelaw.

The Anglo-Saxons and Vikings were still battling for supremacy in 1066 A.D. when the Normans invaded, led by William the Conqueror, from their region in France then and now called Normandy. They were, as the name indicates, descendants of Viking invaders who had settled there earlier.

Not many people of British descent wherever they may be – from Great Britain itself to Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and other parts of the world – can lay claim to being an homogenous race.

Personally, I take pride in that diversity.

Indeed my disappointment in my DNA results is about my hoping they might turn out to be more diverse, as diverse as possible, indeed entirely diverse, as in universal.

Of course, that was never going to be the case, though many thousands of years from now – if the human race lasts that long – it will be.

I’d like to say I am also proud to have a brother and sister in the U.S. whose ancestry is largely Greek, as well as the genetics our father passed on to them. So, in spirit, I’m happy to include their Greek ancestry in my own.

There were a few interesting smaller bits and pieces in my DNA make-up that gave me food for thought: three percent western European, three from Finland and Northwest Russia, two from Italy and Greece, and a trace (less than one percent) of European Jewish.

And then finally there’s that one percent from the Middle East.

Who was that, I wonder, a thousand years or so ago; I’d love to know.

Hear me, my children. If we stop destroying ourselves and the world, we of the human species may yet have a long and interesting future if we celebrate our diversity, rather than fight about it. Build a bridge, and then another, and another . . . not walls.

But first things first though: please you folks in the U.S. don’t let Donald Trump get his hands on the nuclear codes and the nuclear button.

It’s hard to believe, but that is indeed still a real possibility.

A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in October, 2016


4 thoughts on “Hope is in our DNA

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