Sunday, March 25, 2007

Threading "British" & "Celtic" DNA Labyrinths

Following up my blog post earlier this month on the NY Times' Nicholas Wade's March 6 article about the debates over the common "Celtic" indigenous origins attributed to most of the "British" Isles' present-day inhabitants, here's today's Amazon review of Bryan Sykes' "Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain & Ireland." (WW Norton, 2006). Alas, but no local library yet carries his colleague Stephen Oppenheimer's new book, "The Roots of the British: A Genetic Detective Story."

Earlier reviewers sum up Professor Sykes arguments well. I read "Seven Daughters of Eve," and what struck me about this "sequel" is that Sykes does not engage in the imaginary narratives with which he enlivened the composite "life and times" of his seven genetic prototypical mDNA matriarchs. Those tales gave a poignant and charming (albeit popularized and therefore probably bound to annoy his colleagues) glimpse into the conjectured "inspired by a true story" that we cannot fully translate from Paleolithic Europe. "Saxons, Vikings, and Celts" avoids this fictional device.

Reading between the lines, as many readers and critics misunderstood his "seven daughters" as "real" individuals, Sykes may have opted for less creative methods to explain the patriarchal counterparts-- which are far more numerous if less attractively developed here in their genetically distinguishable progeny, it seems from their Y-chromosome variants. Instead you get potted histories and summarized geographies of the early formation of the land and the tribes that entered the various insular regions post-Ice Age. While valuable to a general readership who never heard of Geoffrey of Monmouth or learned where the Grampians sprawl, such data does fill these pages with a lot of material that veers tangentially from his genetic research. It's difficult in a book aimed at non-scholars to combine so much information from so many fields; it reminds me too of Jared Diamond's similarly ambitious, polymathic, and synthesizing efforts that roam widely in rounding up support for the grand scientific thesis that spans millennia. Like Diamond, Sykes arouses scholarly and popular controversy. He too likes a good anecdote, and labors to entertain as well as educate, and shows he can speak to audiences outside the learned seminar. We need academically trained authors who can fill this necessary role and so counter so much merciless jargon and dismal prose from their more timid, tenure-tracked, and dryasdust peers.

What puzzles me is the lack of any bibliography, any footnotes. Even popularized accounts usually provide references or suggestions for further reading. The work by Paul Besu into Scots emigrants' search for roots sounds intriguing from the quotes on pp. 53-4. But what's Besu's book, or article, titled? From where in his work are the quotes taken? There's nothing to go on here.

Sykes apologizes at one point for having to even mention "haplotypes." I was relieved he finally did; he builds on Prof. David Bradley and his Trinity College Dublin team's analyses of Irish DNA that were initially published about half-a-dozen years ago. When Bradley had announced this data initially, I had searched in vain for any layman's explanation of the study beyond a paragraph or two in the press. This book met my expectations for a summary of Bradley's team's work I could understand. Certainly, as on pp. 112-113, Sykes shines when he talks of the humanity behind the numbers to the thirteenth decimal point, and how the Isle of Skye's weather at his second home suits his scholarly pursuit. These moments of candor and passion sparkle amidst the recitals of the highest peaks in Scotland, evidence from Roman amphorae, and where to get the best ice-cream in Lampeter! It's as idiosyncratic as the studies of his lovingly- described forebear in research, John Beddoe, a century ago.

In "A United Kingdom, Maybe?" by Nicholas Wade, in the March 3, 2007, Science section of the New York Times, Stephen Oppenheimer's theory that most in the Isles descend from ancestors 16,000 years ago is also explained along with Sykes' somewhat variant interpretations. But Oppenheimer, also a geneticist at Oxford and so presumably just down the corridor from Sykes, is never mentioned in SV&G. Why? Professional rivalry? Reluctance to mention his colleague's work that would be explained in Oppenheimer's 2006 "The Origins of the British," that came out alongside Sykes' book? Silence seems strange, given both profs work on "British" DNA. Maybe it's academic etiquette or cautious reticence.

Oppenheimer agrees overall with Sykes that the Isles were settled by the group still genetically predominant today. Oppenheimer appears to claim a date significantly earlier than Sykes suggests here with "Cheddar Man," (whose tooth drilling by Sykes begins his book vividly) but the two are both arguing for a primarily "Celtic" (despite the problems with that psuedo-"racial" 19c term for a linguistic and not an ethnic identity common among certain earlier Europeans, as Sykes explains well) "bedrock" of shared ancestry for most of the Isles' present-day people. Sykes wanders these Isles before asserting this in his conclusion. Lots of his byways are fascinating, others depending on the reader's own predilections may be tedious, as on any journey with an eager if rambling guide.

Certain places of interest on the journey lack necessary details. While he cites Ireland's island-wide population at 5.7 million, how does the current situation in the Republic whose 10% of its residents are now foreign-born effect his estimations, which seem to assume all of the Irish population are of families at least a few centuries longer established? Similarly, I wondered how soon the genetic impacts of Italians, Poles, Jamaicans, Nigerians, or Chinese begin to alter the DNA composition in ways that can be measured in the peoples native to, but intermarrying with now, those arriving in recent decades as global immigrants into Great Britain. Did Sykes in his gathering of samples only test people who knew they had "native" origins? This selection is implied but not explained.

Also, he cites for a surname, e.g. "Dyson," (pg. 272) that 90% of those with the paternal surname share the same Y-chromosome from common ancestry. Does this confirm the rumor of supposed (10% of, some say, although this figure by others as been said to be inflated) offspring who are not paternally sired by their putative "fathers"-- or what of those adopted into a family, or in the old days fostered? Is there a "rate" measurable of non- "paterfamilial" births by women that shows a pattern over the centuries of a steady percentage of extra-marital pregnancies? Does this 10% explain the less than 100% chromosomal match to a surname assuming a paternal descendant's lineage? I am guessing these effects, but Sykes never tells us why there's this 10% discrepancy or its DNA cause.

More gaps remained after I read "S V & C." The "DNA of Wales" chapter seemed rushed. If Ealdgyth on pg. 227 was Queen of Wales before the death of Gruffudd, why did she have a Saxon name? More crucially, speaking of Welsh genetic roots, why the lower- than- expected rate of Y-chromosome "Oisin" mutations in mid-Wales? He mentions and maps in the back but does not give any in-depth detail about the "families" of the less common markers metaphorically named Eshu and Re. Where are these groups from? No help here. I don't understand how Wodan differs from Sigurd exactly.

Finally, he argues that women rarely move about as much as the men who invade and kill off their male enemies but spare their womenfolk as potential mothers. Where did all the males keeping alive the Y-chromosomes of the pre-Germanic Atlantic-Fringe, Celtic-speaking peoples retreat to and procreate undercover in the Isles? Is Sykes arguing that the maternal "native" stock is mostly "Celtic" and so this numerical preponderance outweighs the part-"Celtic," part-"Germanic, etc." male mix traceable in their Y-chromosomes? Or, is even the male side mostly majority "Celtic" even without the female indigenous element? I still am unsure.

If Gildas' claims of the "Ruin of Britain" were exaggerations, then how did these pre-Germanic cultures adapt to their new overlords, linguistically, while preserving their stubbornly "native" bloodlines genetically? More needed filling in here. Especially since on pg. 285 he notes the opposite claim, that Y-chromosome diversity in regards to dating its settlement dates has been challenged by claims to "patrilocality," men staying put while women wander off to marry. Sykes challenges this indirectly with the "Genghis effect," but I remain puzzled about this counter-claim of "men stay, women go" that opposes his book's conclusions.

But this uneven presentation manages still to end powerfully. He compares the mDNA to a smooth umbilical cord back into maternal mists, while the male Y "thrusts its way from generation to generation." (I add, in both senses of the word!) This maniacal patriarchal drive wreaks havoc, enslaves and kills in the name of conquest and destruction and empire. "We could not have any more different conduits into the depths of our ancestry." (pg. 279) I agree with reviewers who note that in our DNA quest we are only grasping two strands of a multi-colored thread, the only two whose twists we can follow, and that this obvious fact, strangely unacknowledged by Sykes, does threaten to become too reductive a trail to chart accurately our ancestral passage through the labyrinth of time.

As Sykes notes, the blur of Teutonic ancestries with the Vikings, Normans, Danelaw, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Roman legionnaires makes easy "tribal" genealogies difficult to unravel from the "Wodan" and "Sigurd" strands. This key point, undermining the manipulative historical claims by the English to an Anglo-Saxon, anti-Roman Teutonic, and therefore anti-Roman Catholic legacy of Germanic freedom fighters, finally explains why so many chronicles, legends, invasions, and conquests were "justified" by those who took over the name of the earlier British if apparently not their maternal inheritance to an ineradicable pre-Germanic, indigenous, eventually Celtic-speaking matriarchal heritage for the majority in today's Isles. Pg. 206: "The later arrivals may get all the headlines, but it takes a lot to displace indigenous genes, especially on the female side." I remind you how James Joyce mused in "Ulysses" that paternity is a "legal fiction." But the woman's own record, DNA shows, can never lie.

As a non-scientist, I am grateful for Sykes' book. Despite its starts and stops, I am happy to have gone along for this intellectual ride. I am sure that geneticists will build upon the raw material here and find more intricate structures in our veins and sinews that will explain much that Sykes and his colleagues now can inevitably only suggest as educated guesses or speculate upon.

(P.S. Image: from Luigi Cavalli's map of Y-chromosome haplotype distribution; area #17, Castlerea in Roscommon, is the exact barony that my Finans, Dockerys, Fordes, and an O'Connell or Connell or Connellan all occupied since, well practically time immemorial. It has the highest percentage on this chart of the Isles, 90%, of R1B haplotypes passed down through the male line-- indicating a considerable degree of genetic isolation from the rest of the gene pool. See more at: )


GoAwayPlease said...

My first visit here, I stalked over frm your comment at Miss Templeton's blog.

Seeing " Born in Los Angeles through no fault of my own;" in your Profile, I can only hope that the complete works of Raymond Chandler forms part of your as yet unread library, and possibly 'City Of Quartz', and that you find time to read them soon.
Peace n Love from far far away from LA

Fionnchú said...

I read Davis' rather tendentious "City of Quartz" around the time of 9/11; it bugged me that while he was from faraway Fontana he claimed an insider's LA perspective, 40-odd miles distant. Still, given the sprawl that consumed what once were distinguishable demarcations between the Inland Empire and the city since then...His attitude riled me, but not a waste of time reading his screed.

I tried a Chandler paperback in high school. Mysteries are beyond my grasp. I have a hard enough time following one-hour crime dramas, I admit.