Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Race, ethnicity, Einstein, and King Tut

Today we have two stories that are mostly interesting in juxtaposition.

First, we have an article by Jo Marchant over at Medium entitled, "Tutankhamun's Blood," wherein we hear about the work done by Yehia Gad to sequence the young pharaoh's DNA -- and how it set off a war over what race/ethnic group gets to claim him.  First, there was concern that the test would show a connection between the Egyptian king and... *cue dramatic music* the Jews:
The editor of Archaeology magazine, Mark Rose, reported in 2002 that [proposed DNA testing] was cancelled “due to concern that the results might strengthen an association between the family of Tutankhamun and the Biblical Moses.” An Egyptologist with close links to the antiquities service, speaking to me on condition of anonymity, agreed: “There was a fear it would be said that the pharaohs were Jewish.”

Specifically, if the results showed that Tutankhamun shared DNA with Jewish groups, there was concern that this could be used by Israel to argue that Egypt was part of the Promised Land.

This might seem an outlandish notion, but given the context of the Middle Eastern history, it is understandable...  For many Egyptians, the idea that their most famous kings could share some common heritage with their enemies is a hard one to cope with.

Yet the possibility that Tutankhamun could share some DNA with ancient Jewish tribes is not far-fetched, says Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist and mummy specialist at the American University in Cairo. After all, the royal family might well have shared genes with others who originated in the same part of the world. “It is quite possible that you might find Semitic strains of DNA in the pharaohs,” she says. “Christians, Jews, Muslims—they all came from a similar gene pool originally.”
Yehia Gad finally was allowed to do the DNA testing, under the direction of an Egyptian antiquities expert, the archaeologist Zahi Hawass, and the results turned out to be controversial, but for a different reason:
A Swiss genealogy company named IGENEA issued a press release based on a blurry screen-grab from the Discovery documentary. It claimed that the colored peaks on the computer screen proved that Tutankhamun belonged to an ancestral line, or haplogroup, called R1b1a2, that is rare in modern Egypt but common in western Europeans...  This immediately led to assertions by neo-Nazi groups that King Tutankhamun had been “white,” including YouTube videos with titles such as King Tutankhamun’s Aryan DNA Results, while others angrily condemned the entire claim as a racist hoax. It played, once again, into the long-running battle over the king’s racial origins. While some worried about a Jewish connection, the argument over whether the king was black or white has inflamed fanatics worldwide. Far-right groups have used blood group data to claim that the ancient Egyptians were in fact Nordic, while others have been desperate to define the pharaohs as black African. A 1970s show of Tutankhamun’s treasures triggered demonstrations arguing that his African heritage was being denied, while the blockbusting 2005 tour was hit by protests in Los Angeles, when demonstrators argued that the reconstruction of the king’s face built from CT scan data was not sufficiently “black.”
If that's not ridiculous enough, just yesterday we had a story from Haaretz about an apparently insane Iranian cleric who claims that Albert Einstein was actually a Shi'a Muslim:
The report cites a video by Ayatolla Mahadavi Kani, described as the head of the Assembly of Experts in the Islamic Republic of Iran, who says that there are documents proving the Jewish scientist embraced Shiite Islam and was an avid follower of Ja'far Al-Sadiq, an eighth-century Shi'i imam.

In the video, Kani quotes Einstein as saying that when he heard about the ascension of the prophet Mohammed, "a process which was faster than the speed of light," he realized "this is the very same relativity movement that Einstein had understood."

The ayatollah adds: "Einstein said, 'when I heard about the narratives of the prophet Mohamad and that of the Ahle-Beit [prophet's household] I realized they had understood these things way before us.'"
What I find wryly amusing about all of this he's-mine-no-he's-mine tug-of-war over famous historical figures is how it ignores the reality of what race and ethnic identification actually are.  There is some biological basis for race, which is how we can generate cladograms for ethnic groups like the one pictured below:

Note what is, for some people, the most surprising thing about this tree; two very dark-skinned individuals, one a Native Australian and the other a Bantu from Zimbabwe, are far more distantly related to each other than an Englishman is related to a guy from Japan -- even though both the Bantu and the Australian are routinely lumped together as "Black," and the Englishman and the Japanese consider themselves different races.

Professor Emeritus Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, the acclaimed and much-cited population geneticist at Stanford, writes, "Human races are still extremely unstable entities in the bands of modern taxonomists…  As one goes down the scale of the taxonomic hierarchy toward the lower and lower partitions, the boundaries between clusters become even less clear…  There is great genetic variation in all populations, even in small ones.  From a scientific point of view, the concept of race has failed to obtain any consensus…the major stereotypes, all based on skin color, hair color and form, and facial traits, reflect superficial differences that are not confirmed by deeper analysis with more reliable genetic traits and whose origin dates from recent evolution mostly under the effect of climate and perhaps sexual selection."

That's not to say that there's nothing to race at all.  Self-perception, privilege, culture, religion, and language are all strongly connected to, and influenced by, race and ethnicity.  But the genetic connection is tenuous at best, which is why I always find it funny when someone tells me that (s)he is "1/32 Native American," and then decides to adopt a Native name, wear Native-style jewelry and clothing, and so on.  By the time your ancestry has that small a proportion from any ethnic group, you are hardly Native American in any cultural sense, so doing all that sort of stuff -- and yes, I know more than one person who does -- is little more than an affectation.

But it's also not to say that I'm not proud of my roots.  My family is predominantly French and Scottish, with some Dutch, German, English, Irish, and Native American thrown in for good measure (and the latter, I'm afraid, isn't much more than 1/32 of my heritage).  Ethnically, I'm a southern Louisianian, and if you don't think that's an ethnic and cultural group, you should spend some time in Lafayette, Louisiana.  But I am, at the same time, fully aware of how fluid a concept ethnic identification is.  I've lost most of my Cajun accent in the three decades I've lived in YankeeLand, and my children -- who share about the same proportion of Cajun blood I do, since their mother was also half south-Louisiana-French by ancestry -- were raised in upstate New York and therefore aren't ethnically Cajun at all.

And all of this is why the wrangling over whether King Tut was "actually" European (or Black, or Semitic, or whatever) and whether Albert Einstein was "actually" a Muslim, is ridiculous.  We are all mixtures of genetics and culture; and each of those brings along with it physical and cultural baggage.  It's wonderful when someone embraces his or her ethnicity for the positive features (the perspective on the world, the music, the language, the food) and jettisons the negative aspects (the divisive us-vs.-them mentality, the notions of superiority and inferiority, the assumption of privilege).  An understanding of what ethnicity and race are, and are not, is a critical step in growing into a world where we value each other's shared humanity more than we worry about what labels we choose to place on ourselves.

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