Genealogy, the modern form of ancestor worship, has become suddenly fashionable. It has never been easier for people to track their ancestors down, thanks both to the internet, and to the numerous self-help manuals that this new fad has spawned. Perhaps, in an age of transient jobs and – so we are told - increasingly insecure relationships, it is not surprising that so many should seek a renewed sense of identity in their family origins. The trouble is that the trail usually goes cold after a hundred years or so, as official records start to dry up – unless a person happens to be an aristocrat, or the Queen, in which case an insecure sense of familial identity is unlikey to be much of a problem in the first place.
But what if there were a new test that could tell you, broadly speaking, where all of your ancestors have come from over a period of thousands of years? The short answer is that such a test does now exist. Recent advances in science mean that it is now possible to unlock a far fuller story of the genetic past than has ever previously been possible. Inside you – in your DNA – are the traces of every single one of your ancestors. By using a sophisticated computer programme to compare your DNA with a global databank, scientists are now able to reveal the secrets of your global origins.
Earlier this year, I was invited to take off my art critic’s hat and take part in a made-for-TV genetic-cum-cultural experiment. I was to present a show commissioned by Channel 4 and made by the TV production company previously responsible for the series Who Do You Think You Are?, in which selected celebrities go in search of their past. But this time, the focus was to be on a cross-section of “ordinary” people. More specifically, they were all English. The aim of the programme was to plot these people’s ideas of national identity against the hard genetic facts of their actual origins.
The initial proposal read like the ingredients for a typical TV dinner. Take eight people, all of them white, all of them born and raised in England – and all convinced, some militantly so, that they are 100 per cent English. Persuade each of them to give us a sample of their DNA, in the form of a simple cheek swab, and submit it to a series of state-of-the art tests to uncover where they really come from.
The tests would involve comparing their DNA with a global databank that divides the world into four ancient population groups – European, East Asian, Sub-Saharan African and Native American. (This last group covers a large swathe of northern Russia through to the Americas, and so might be more properly considered “Eurasian”.) The results would then be given as a percentage breakdown from each of these groups. A further, narrowing-down test - only for those with a high proportion of European DNA, which was in fact everyone in our group – would break this “European” component down further into four more population groups – Northern European, South Eastern European, Middle Eastern and South Asian.
All of our participants were, initially at least, willing volunteers, anxious to find out their genetic past. A few well-known names were included in the sample – the daughter of a former Prime Minister, Carol Thatcher; a Peer of the Realm, Lord Tebbit; and a tabloid columnist, Garry Bushell – but the principal focus was on a group of members of the public, who had either contacted us via various adverts placed in the press, or had been sought out and persuaded to take part. They included a country lady from Kent, a fishing worker from Grimsby, a lawyer campaigning to have the English accepted as an ethnic group, a stand-up comic and a trainee soldier.
What linked them all was the sincerely held belief that they were English through and through. Their definitions of what it takes to be “English” varied widely. For one, being born here was enough. For another, it was necessary to be descended directly from the pre-1066 inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England – or, at least, to feel a profound kinship with those peoples. For another, the acid test was simply whether a person supported the English football and cricket teams.
As a dry run for the experiment, I agreed to have my own DNA tested. The results came as a surprise. In my first test I came out as 85% European (as might be expected, since anyone born in Europe and with family here for some time would expect to score high in this category); 11% East Asian; 4% Sub-Saharan African and 0% Native American. In my second test, my European DNA was broken down further into 60% Northern European, 23% South Eastern European, 12% South Asian and 5% Middle Eastern.
To analyse all of these results – and those of all the participants in the film – we turned to Dr Mark Thomas, a top genetic scientist, from the Centre for Genetic Anthropology at the University College, London. First, he explained that while the DNA tests and the science behind them was solid, there was always a small margin of error; and that his analysis was his interpretation of the results. He compared the process to tasting a wine and making an educated guess about its point of origin.
As it turned out, my European score was one of the lowest in our sample, whereas my East Asian was the highest. I also had a relatively high Sub-Saharan African percentage. One explanation for this, suggested by Dr Thomas, might be that in my relatively recent past, say 4-5 generations I could have had an ancestor from either – or both - East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Alternatively, he said that it could be a slow agglomeration of genes from those two areas of the world over time.
My second set of results, which broke down my European DNA, filled out the picture a little more. My Northern European score was bang on the average for someone from the UK. My relatively high South Eastern European and South Asian scores pushed my possible ancestral origins further east in Europe, say to Bulgaria or Greece or even Turkey, maybe around the Black Sea. My genetic profile was also quite consistent with that of someone from Spain or Portugal. In other words, I could have strong ancestral links with either Spain or Bulgaria, with a relative or two from Sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia thrown in too. Ultimately what it all means is, simply, that like everyone in the world, I am a person of distinctly mixed origin.
I was not exactly flabbergasted by these results, in that the little I knew about my background suggested a distinctly heterodox ancestry – my paternal great-great-great-grandfather was a tailor from Newcastle, likely to have been of immigrant stock, while my mother’s maiden name suggests French origins. But I was surprised that the geographical spread of my genes was quite as wide as it turned out to be.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about these tests is that they cut through pretty much all of our notions of nationality and cultural identity (which are, of course, social constructs) to a much greater truth: we are all related to one another. According to Mark Thomas it has been estimated that someone living approximately 6,000 years ago is a direct ancestor of every single person living in the world today.
Thomas also pointed out to me that while it is often thought that immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon, man has actually been on the move ever since he first evolved in Africa. In fact, migration is not only the norm, it is nature’s way of keeping us healthy. The more our genes mix, the better long-term health of the species – the better we can withstand infectious diseases and the less likely we are to suffer from genetic diseases. Dr Thomas said there is now some new research that suggests we are hard-wired as a species to attract those with different genes to our own (this apparently works through smell, and he described a hilarious-sounding experiment which involves exposing a woman to ten men’s sweat smells and asking her to state her preference; in nine cases out of ten, she chooses a man with significant gene difference). Without such mixture of genes, disorders like Sickle Cell Anaemia and Cystic Fibrosis would be far more widespread. One of the morals of all this is that being 100% English (100% anything in fact), at the genetic level, would most definitely be bad for your health. If the geneticists were in charge of immigration control, it would be an open-door policy.
For those participating in our television programme, each sure that he or she was English to the core, the tests inevitably provided some fairly startling revelations. Almost everybody in the film had a genetic surprise or shock in store when the results of their DNA tests were revealed. The test results were filmed live, so that we captured that initial jaw-dropping moment – and jaw-dropping it certainly was when some people’s world view started to collapse around them as they were told they might have ancestors in Africa, the Middle East or even Mongolia.
One gentleman, in for a larger surprise than most, was utterly convinced he was 100% English. His definition of what he meant by that? All of his relatives had been born here, for at least 12 generations. When pressed, he admitted he did not know this for sure, but was certain that it must be the case. I presented Dr Thomas with this criterion as a measure of Englishness and asked him, by that measure, how many “English” people currently live in England. The scientist thought about it. “At a rough guess? Er, zero”. Such a thing would only have been possible if a particular social group, isolated from the rest of society, had inbred for centuries.
When all this was explained to our participant, he took the point and was ultimately rather relieved to learn that he was anything but English according to his own, original standards. “I guess we’re all mongrels,” was his phlegmatic response to the results of his gene test – which showed, in fact, that much of his genetic makeup pointed to origins in Russia and Eurasia. Intriguingly, new information about himself began to change his attitude to others, too. When I had met him for the first time, we had talked about immigration and his concern that it was diluting the essential pool of “Englishness”. I remarked that the process could just as easily be seen as an enhancement and, one way or another, we had got on to the subject of football. I had mentioned Ian Wright, the former England footballer, born in England and clearly patriotically English in his passion for England’s increasingly forlorn World Cup hopes – and, of course, black. “Ah yes, but he’s not English,” had come back the reply. “You can’t have black skin and call yourself English.” But when confronted with the facts about his own genes, later in the film, he simply changed his mind. “Yeah alright then, you can be black and English. I hold my hand up. I was wrong.”
It was not until almost the end of the film that the full potential power of these tests was brought home to me, when one of our contributors, 18-year-old trainee soldier Damen Barks made what struck me as a wonderfully precise remark: “For racists to find out that part of them may be what they have discriminated against for years, well that would certainly throw them off their game.” For Damen himself, his own test was a real moment of genetic catharsis – he was visibly astonished when he discovered that he had DNA originating from at least a quarter of the globe. You could see his sense of his own global horizons visibly expanding on camera.
Another of our participants has since discovered a family connection in Turkey which partially confirms her DNA test results. For others, it was not such a welcome revelation. Four days after hearing her results, one of our contributors threatened legal action.
However, I think the bottom line is that these tests could be an extremely powerful tool in the fight against racism. It is not just that they prove, once and for all, that any notions of race – apart from the human race – or racial purity are patently absurd and scientifically wrong. Their power lies in that they prove it by showing people what is in their own blood. When the truths of science become personal truths, they get taken more seriously.
And as for the idea of being “100% English”, well – to put my art critic hat back on again – I think no one has put their finger on the truth better than the great painter Walter Richard Sickert. “No one could be more English than I am, ”he once said archly. “Born in Munich in 1860, of pure Danish descent!”