Marek Kohn
Strategic Planner


Genes and Nations

Europe old and new: romantic ideas of national identity in the age of DNA

'Are Today's Macedonians Successors of Alexander the Great? asks the MakNews website. 'Will Genetics Finally Resolve The Greek-Macedonian Dispute?' wonders the Macedonian Herald. Each, in its particular way, is asking the fundamental question of ethnic identity: 'Where do we come from?' And each anticipates that DNA may be the key that will finally unlock ancient truths. As the basis of the latest branch of the heritage industry, DNA is becoming a tool for building nations.

Casual inspection was once considered sufficient to sort 'us' from 'them', whereas DNA analysis goes beyond surface appearances to scrutinise invisible differences. The keen attention paid by Macedonian websites to papers published in the journal Tissue Antigens is historically apt, because Macedonia is where scientific investigation of invisible human diversity began. During World War 1, Ludwik and Hanka Hirszfeld took blood samples from the soldiers of three continents then assembled on the Macedonian front, as well as from locals, and discovered variations in blood group frequencies among them. 

In their lives, rather than their blood, the Hirszfelds themselves were a parable of how fluid ethnic affiliation can be: Polish Jews, attached to the Serbian army and the university of Zurich, converting to Catholicism, later confined nevertheless to the Warsaw Ghetto, where Ludwik gave illegal lectures on medical topics, including one on blood groups and race. They survived into a world in which, because of the oppression they suffered on grounds of blood, race was a guilty and discredited notion.

It kept alive, however, by shifting its ground. People carried on thinking most of the things they had always thought about the characters of various peoples; that some were excitable, some lazy, others humourless, and so on. But they began to refer to 'ethnic groups' where previously they would have spoken unselfconsciously of 'races'. And, if pressed, they now tended to explain national character in terms of culture, instead of nature. Biology was edited out of ethnic identity. 

Then came DNA. It had the historical advantage of having had its structure identified fifty years ago, in Cambridge, rather than, say, seventy years ago in Munich. Not only did it escape the Nazi taint, but it did not establish itself in the public domain until relatively recently. (In 1996 a US survey poll found that only 21 per cent of Americans could define DNA; today the figure is 60 per cent.) By the time techniques for comparative DNA studies became operational, towards the end of the century, only vestiges of the old ideas of race remained. Surveying human genetic diversity seemed like a new idea. 

Even so, it was instantly controversial. Groups campaigning for indigenous peoples denounced plans for a Human Genome Diversity Project as the ultimate form of neo-colonial exploitation; a 'vampire' project, in the words of one Australian Aboriginal body - turning the genes of marginal peoples into commercial biotech assets. Representing peoples who wanted to maintain their traditions, rather than to establish nation-states, the campaigners were not interested in the potential of genes to further national ambitions.

Back in Europe and its diaspora, however, nationhood is as potent an aspiration in the age of DNA sequencing as it was in the age of romantic insurrections. Matthew Leeming, a British writer, combines the spirits of both eras in his plan to compare Macedonian men's Y chromosomes with those of Afghans said to be descended from Alexander's armies. Macedonian commentators, scouring the scientific literature, have seized upon one paper's finding that the Macedonians belong to a more ancient stratum of Mediterranean populations than the Greeks: old Europe, and resting their case for national legitimacy on it. The Greeks, adds the study for good measure, have strong affinities with black Africans: the past greets the finding with a stiff-armed salute and grabs at it, via a link to MakNews, on a website entitled 'March of the Titans: A History of the White Race', featuring a gallery of notable whites through the ages, from a 'Cro-Magnon' fossil to Adolf Hitler.

And then there is the most globally significant ethnic conflict in the region. One of the Mediterranean study's authors, Antonio Arnaiz-Villena of Madrid, provoked a remarkable incident of scientific censorship when he published a paper which found close genetic similarities between Palestinians and Jews and sought to use the data to "explain the historic basis of the present conflict" between the two peoples. The paper was withdrawn from Human Immunology, amid accusations of pro-Palestinian bias, and librarians were urged to cut the pages out of the journal's printed copies. The doyen of population genetic diversity studies, Luca Cavalli-Sforza, signed a letter to the journal Nature rejecting the idea that genetic data could explain political conflicts, criticising the analytical methods used, and describing the idea of close affinities between Greeks and Africans as "extraordinary". 

Meanwhile, far to the north, the biotech company deCODE is reinventing the Icelandic nation as a unique intellectual property asset, for its mission to identify genetic factors in illness. Putting cultural and biological heritage together, it speaks of the Icelanders' tradition of genealogical record-keeping ('The Book of Icelanders', and of their relative genetic homogeneity. It has made a selling point out of what used to be known as racial purity. (For critiques, see Mannvernd's site, and an openDemocracy article by Mannvernd activist Skúli Sigurdsson.) 

Estonia, by contrast, argues that the commercial potential of its gene pool lies in diversity: history has seen to it that most European genes will be found there. In this light the country's large Russian minority, often regarded as an awkward historical legacy, looks like a valuable element of the genetic portfolio. It's an intriguing new way to build a national identity, by turning a nation into a biotech brand.