Monday, October 08, 2007

10 questions for Jon Entine   posted by Razib @ 10/08/2007 11:58:00 AM

Jon Entine is the author of Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People and Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It. He is also a columnist for Ethical Corporation Magazine and an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Abraham's Children will be on the shelves later this month. Below are his responses to 10 Questions.

(note, to explore further please see the website for Abraham's Children. Also, Jon has a guest post over at Eye on DNA)

1) The past 10 years have been rather fertile in human genomics; and certainly the study of Jewish genetic history has been big news. You obviously had a lot to work with in your most recent book, Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People. But how much penetration has this knowledge had in your estimation in the broader Jewish American population? For example, is the likelihood that many Jewish foremothers were of gentile European ethnic background common knowledge?

There is certainly a growing awareness of what might be called "Jewish genetics," focused mostly on disease research, such as the identification of breast cancer and neurological mutations found commonly in Jews. Jewish DNA research centers have sprung up around the world and efforts are underway to export into other ethnic communities the screening model developed by the Jewish community in New York, which had been devastated by a high incidence of Tay-Sachs, one of the many brain disorders that disproportionately target Jews.

Although many secular Jews did not even know there was such a thing as a Jewish priesthood, there is now widespread awareness of the existence of the Cohan Modal Haplotype, the marker that traces about to the time of the first High Priest of the Jews, Aaron, Moses's brother. Whether this mutation originated with the biblical Aaron-there is no extra-biblical evidence that he or Moses even lived–or just to a person who lived 3000 or so years ago, and is the progenitor of one of the Cohanim lines, will likely never be known, however.

As for the more nuanced narratives that have emerged from the study of Jewish genetics-such as the fact that most Ashkenazi Jews are descended on their maternal line from Christians or pagans who more than likely never went through a formal conversion (which would make most Ashkenazim non-Jews under Israeli law)—no, that's barely known. It could provoke some intriguing soul searching among Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, about what determines Jewishness. I'm looking forward to my talks to Jewish groups to see how this prickly issues plays out.

2) It seems that simple visual inspection yields the inference that Ashkenazi Jews are a population which arose out of hybridization between a Middle Eastern people and European stock. That is, though some Polish Jews could pass as Polish and some could pass as Lebanese, the majority seem to span the spectrum between. And yet we have had wild swings in perception over the last century in regards to whether Jews were a wholly foreign element or the descendants of converts. Can you elucidate the reasons why people have denied the witness of their eyes so thoroughly?

As we all recognize, ethnicity and identity is closely bound with politics. The issue of "Jewish distinctiveness," for lack of a better phrase, long has been part of Jewish history. There were a number of periods during which Jews watered down their signature identity, self-selected or imposed, as a "chosen people." The Samaritans were a blend of Jews and non-Jews. Jews adopted many Hellenistic cultural practices during the Second Temple period, and intermarriage, particulalry among the educated elite, was not uncommon. There was also a fair amount of intermingling between Sephardic Jews and non-Jews during the Golden Age of Jewish, Muslim, Christian relations and in the century leading up to the Inquisition, which undoubtedly left a complicated imprint on the Jewish gene pool. Another more powerful wave of assimilation was touched off by the Jewish Enlightenment, which encouraged some Jews to drop their identity as "Jews first" and blend in culturally and through intermarriage with non-Jews, particularly in Greater Germany, in the 19th and early 20th enturies.

In each of those cases, Jews assimilated along the edges but the Jewish community Maintained its central ethic of Jewish distinctiveness rooted in the belief that Judaism was a tribal religion tied by threads of ancestry, culture and belief. Each of those experiments in assimilation arguably ended badly for many Jews, with the Holocaust the most tragic and recent example. So, when a movement arose in the 1950s, most popularly propaganized by Arthur Koestler in The Thirteenth Tribe, that Ashkenazi Jews were mostly converts, its political and social attractiveness-Jews didn't have to suffer the consequences of their chosenness-many liberal Jews fervently embraced the idea. Beginning in the 1950s and 60s, it became fashionable for Jews to to reframe Judaism as a religion and not a "race," which fit with the anti-race ideology of post World War II Europe and America.

Now, of course, DNA research has shown us that the story is a lot more complicated. Many Jews ARE descendants of converts, at least on the maternal side; but they have also maintained a relative blood purity on the male side that is extraordinary. The historical intermarriage rate of Jews (those who maintained their Jewish identity) remained at less than one half of one percent from biblical times until the mid twentieth century. And even after Askenazi males took on non-Jewish wives during the founding years of the medieval European Jewish community, Jewish fidelity took hold with a vengeance.

3) Some researchers have objected to the inferences made from the presence of the "Cohen Modal Haplotype" in disparate groups (e.g., some Hispano populations in the southwest). What is your sense about the current balance of opinion in the field of human genetics right now about its utility in ascertaining the signatures of past Jewish population movements and their subsequent acculturation?

DNA analysis in its present state remains a relatively crude tool. It's fairly easy to track our paternal and maternal lines but those are only tiny threads of our genetic history, although the stories they tell carry a lot of romantic cachet. The rest of the human genome, however, remains pretty mysterious.

Jews, because of their historical cultural and genetical isolation, are easier than most populations to track along the Y and mitochondrial DNA lines, but beyond that, the trails are heavily overgrown by the brush of paternal accidents and intermarriage, no matter how infrequent. Even supposedly clear cut findings-the three breast cancer mutations originated in Askhenazi Jews in the early medieval period---have been thrown asunder by the appearance of these mutations in pocket communities of Hispanos of the American Southwest, who trace their ancestry back to Spain, as Sephardic Jews before the Inquisition. At this point, genetic genealogy and anthropology is a great innovation for shedding light on all kinds of things, including disease origins, but its real value is as a complement to the other tools available to genealogists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians.

4) I am stuck by the high proportion of the CMH among the Bene Israel of Bombay. The Cohens were obviously just one lineage among many, and as you note after the destruction of the Second Temple the privileges and status of the priests were more symbolic and nominal as Rabbinical Judaism became the dominant dispensation. Was there some peculiarity among the Bene Israel in regards to the status of Cohens which might explain the disproportionate representation of this lineage?

First let's address some myths about the CMH. About 50 percent of Jewish males with an oral tradition of being members of the Jewish priesthood, which by Jewish tradition originated with Aaron, carry a distinctive mutation known as the CMH. Yet it does not stand as genetic witness to the biblical tale of Moses and his brother Aaron. The original CMH studies suggested the mutation appeared at about the time Moses was believed to have led the Jews out of Egypt (if in fact Moses and Aaron even existed). More recent studies have identified at least two CMH markers, suggesting that the originating haplotype might date somewhat earlier, making the CMH more likely a marker of Semitic rather than Jewish ancestry. It is its found in fairly high frequency in Arab populations, in Oman and Iraq for example, and among Palestinaans, as well as in other nearby populations.

The CMH is also found in populations believed to have Jewish ancestry, such as the Lemba of South Africa and the Bene Israel of India. The CMH is not common across all their members, however. As with the case of the broader Jewish population, the marker is concentrated in a priestly sub-group. Considering the history of cultural and genetic isolation expeerienced by the Bene Israel and the Lemba, and even more so by the priestly sub-clans, it's understandable that the CMH marker could have been preserved in such high frequencies.

5) Your book is obviously predicated on the revolution in scientific genealogy, nevertheless, you do offer some caution in terms of people reading too much into uni-parental results. My own general advice when friends ask me about purchase of these kits is that most of the time they won't find out anything they didn't know, though in particular circumstances (e.g., African Americans who want to fix on a particular tribal provenance for one lineage) I think it is worthwhile. What is your advice for the typical person in regards to scientific geneaology?

Caveat emptor. Those determined to focus on the two narrow lines of human ancestry—on the Y chromosome and in mitochondrial DNA-will miss the complex web of connections––genetic and cultural––that shape identity. It's safe to say the narratives that emerge from the genes that we can now identify will be simplistic and often misleading.

Consider the story of Harvard University's Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an African American, who was both shocked and bemused to learn that his DNA on his mother's side did not track back to the Yoruba people as he had long thought. The Yoruba have a rich mythology and are believed to have been among the most culturally sophisticated of the African cultures before the arrival of Europeans. "A number of exact matches turned up," Gates wrote, "leading straight back to that African Kingdom called Northern Europe, to the genes of (among others) a female Ashkenazi Jew. Maybe it was time to start listening to ‘My Yiddishe Mama," he quipped.

DNA genealogy kits are great fun in helping us understand the general wanderings (minus the interesting migratory detours, some of which could have lasted thousands of years) of our male and female ancestors, but that's a limited story. Humans like to move around and fool around. As Gates' discovery underscores, there is a no way, using today's DNA technology, that he or any of us can retrace the movements of the many other genetic lines that contribute to our DNA.

6) In Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It I recall that you seemed to favor a "multi-regional" model for the origin of various populations and their distinctive characteristics. Have your conceptions of human evolutionary origins changed in the last 7 years at all? I note that you mention the Neandertal introgression work, which is predicated on predominant African origins overlain with a few salient "archaic" genetic elements.

The scientific consensus, which I am comfortable with, suggests a common African origin for the various populations of the world. That said, elements of the mult-regional model are still in play. We now have evidence, for example, that the Aboriginal population of Australia was relatively distinct for nearly 50,000 years. The core population that remained in Africa also faced definining geographic isolation. Migratory populations that settled in northern Asia also were somewhat isolated for thousands of years, until after the last ice age.

In each case, evolutionary forces played a role in shaping distinctive characteristics-physically and mentally. It's even possible-though highly speculative at this point-that the Neandertal genes or the genes of other remnant populations still to be identified could be present in one or another modern population, and have a unique impact.

We truly are a diverse species, and in some characteristics, this diversity patterns itself by population; it's not just superficial. When the ranks of the top 100 meter runners, all of whom are of West African origin, is suddenly dominated by whites from Des Monies or Berlin, we might rethink that thesis, but as of now, it's pretty clear that human "races"-that word used for lack of a better popular term-do exist.

7) Since you wrote Taboo there has been some discussion about the decline black Americans in baseball and the influx of European players in basketball. Did you anticipate these shifts and the pubic comment they would engender?

I'm amused when I read headlines, such as one that appeared last March on ESPN that "only 8.4 percent of major league players were black last season". You don't have to adjust your TV sets; the headline was indeed dead wrong.

As Richard Lapchick writes in the most recent "Racial and Gender Report Card," issued last March, almost 30 percent of today's baseball players are Latino-and many of them have a high percentage of African genes. Journalists and ideologically inclined sociologists and anthropologists, often confuse the racial folk category of "black" with the geographical or linguistic category of "Latin American" or "Hispanic." Skin color is a mark of ancestry not country of residency. Categorizing black Latinos as "not black" is like saying that the emergence of Meb Keflezighi, the Eritrean (East African) born runner who became a naturalized US citizen in 1998, as an international superstar proves that American blacks, almost all of whom are of West African ancestry, are suddenly genetically able to compete as international marathoners. It's meaningless.

How can anyone classify, say, David Ortiz, born in the Dominican Republic, as anything but black? Although the number of American blacks is declining in baseball-it was 20 percent a decade ago--the percentage of black baseball players from North and Latin America combined has not declined at all. If "black" is taken as a (somewhat superficial) marker of primarily West African ancestry, than the percentage of black baseball players is mor than 35 percent––at an all time high. Moreover, the top awards in baseball continue to be disproportionately won by players with West African ancestry.

The influx of European white players in the NBA is an understandable byproduct of the globalization of the game and the booming economies of Eastern Europe. Culture plays a huge role in sports selection, creating a feedback loop between genetics and opportunity. Still, the white resurgence is greatly exaggerated. According to the Racial and Gender Report Card, whites made up about 25 percent of the players ten years ago. Today, despite all the publicity of a white revival, it's down to 23 percent. Moreover, most of the NBA's big-name superstars are blacks of West African ancestry. It's not an issue of black and white; it's an issue of body types; the sub-population of blacks from West Africa, including African Americans, have a slight biogenetic advantage over whites.

8) Has the genetic data changed your personal perspective at all as a Jewish American in any significant way?

Jews are a funny lot when it comes to discussing the implications of genetic research, and I'm no different. We were brought up to believe that we were unique-if not chosen by God, which never sat well with athiests like myself, than at least culturally distinct. We were a modern day tribe with all the rituals, silent forms of communication, and initiation rites that puzzles and irritates many non-Jews. Yet Jews are also imbued with the belief that we should never, at all costs, publicly acknowledge this cultural distinctiveness for fear of stirring a backlash-stories of the Holocaust were drilled into us from childhood, so why court danger?

Now research appears that suggests that our cultural exceptionalism may be rooted in genetics. This is both empowering and disquieting to Jews. It was no surprise to me that the sharpest, most vitriolic ideological attacks on Taboo, and surely to come on aspects of Abraham's Children, will come from self-proclaimed "liberal" Jews who will deny, in defiance of the evidence, that there are population based differences in behavior or physiology. That fact—it's not just an idea, after all—makes Jews nervous, even Jewish scientists who privately acknowledge these genetic based differences.

When I wrote Taboo, I fcoused much attention on the theme highlighted in the subtitle: "….Why We are Afraid to Talk About It"-that is, why we are afraid to openly discuss human genetic differences. That was also a central theme of Abraham's Children. We talk a lot about diversity in the United States, as long as we wink and smile that this diversity is not real, just superificial, a cultural patina. But in some aspects of our humanity, it is very real, and such differences can have huge consequences in everything from sports performance to success in the classroom.

The DNA data has solidified my conviction to follow my "Jewish instincts," nurtured by culture and pehaps by genetics over many centuries: challenge the conventional wisdom and spur constructive dialogue.

9) What was the information which most surprised you while you were doing the research for "Abraham's Children?"

Time and again, I was shocked by the power and romance of DNA, the hold it has on som many people. I saw men and women literally upend their lives, literally, based on the tiniest sliver of genetic material. Why would a fervent Christian abandon her religious beliefs after discovering a distant connection to those of Jewish ancestry? Heck, we are all related if you go back far enough in time, to apes and even bacteria. Why the atraction to an ancient tribal religion? Having been brought up Jewish, it's difficult to appreciate the metaphysical power of Jewish religious and ancestral archetypes on so many non-Jews. Is it religious? Cultural? Genetic? It's baffling and fascinating.

10) Now that "Abraham's Children" is complete, what next?

It's time to move from description to prescription. I'm planning, in my next book, to look at the public policy implications of the DNA revolution, particularly in education. Yes, it will be like walking through a minefield, but I'm used to that.