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.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Answers, ignorance, and mitochondrial DNA

Something I fight continuously, as a teacher, is the idea that the most important thing is THE ANSWER.

It's the fault of the way education is usually conducted, of course.  Whether because teachers were themselves taught that way, or because of expediency, THE ANSWER is always considered to be the critical thing.  It doesn't matter how you got there; process isn't the concern.  As long as you have THE ANSWER in the appropriate space, you get full credit.

The problem is, by the time students get to high school, I'm expecting that they'll be moving beyond that, and it's often a battle.  I've had more than one student say, "Just tell me what to write down," as if somehow that was going to engender understanding.  My frustration on this point is what resulted in the following actual conversation:
Student:  What do I write down for question #7?
Me:  Whatever you think the correct explanation is.
Student:  But what if my explanation isn't right?
Me:  Then I'll mark it wrong.
Student:  But I don't want to write down the wrong answer!
Me:  Then don't.
In my own defense, I wasn't simply trying to be snarky; it just gets tiring to know that my refrain of "I will not think for you" often falls on deaf ears.

I find myself wondering how deep this inclination goes, and if it's because as a culture, we're taught to expect that there always is a single correct answer.  The biblical maxim of "Ask and ye shall receive" is pretty deeply ingrained.  We're uncomfortable with not knowing.

We're even more uncomfortable where there may be no way to know.

I ran squarely into this with my genealogical pursuits a couple of days ago.  There's a pair of sisters who were amongst the founding mothers of Acadia (as people of French descent call Nova Scotia).  Their names are Catherine and Edmée LeJeune, and they show up in Acadia in the early 1600s.  (I actually descend, on my mother's side of the family, from both of them.)

No one knows where they were born, or who their parents were.  The early records simply aren't complete enough.  This has led to speculation that they may have been Natives -- there are numerous records of early French settlers marrying Native women.  Could it be that the LeJeune sisters were members of the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, or some other Native tribe of eastern Canada?

The whole thing was a moot point for decades; like I said, the documentation simply does not exist.  This didn't stop rampant speculation on both sides of the question.  Instead of just leaving their origin as "unknown," people seemed to need to fill in the blank with something.

Then, along came mitochondrial DNA analysis.  mtDNA is only inherited through the maternal line, so any matrilineal descendant of either sister should pinpoint their origin.  Matrilineal descendants (several of them) were traced, offered up blood samples, and the results all agreed; Catherine and Edmée were of the haplotype U6a7a, a signature that is characteristic of North African ancestry.

In my mind, this seemed to settle it.  The Moors made significant inroads into southwestern Europe in the Middle Ages, and there are huge numbers of people in Spain, Portugal, and southern France who have North African ancestry.  Catherine and Edmée most likely were born in France.  But that wasn't good enough; the people who had already decided that they were Native weren't content to let it rest.

Enter Dr. Howard Barraclough "Barry" Fell, professional zoologist and amateur archaeologist and linguist, who in 1976 published a book called America B.C.: Ancient Settlers in the New World.  In it, using the cherry-picking lexicography favored by people who aren't actually trained in linguistic analysis, Fell came to the conclusion that the Mi'kmaq orthography, one of the only pre-Columbian North American writing systems, was descended from none other than...

... ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Now I hasten to state that most linguists consider Fell to be a well-meaning but misguided amateur.  (For a particularly insightful take-down of his conclusions, check out this site, courtesy of linguist and scholar Richard Flavin.)  But this hasn't stopped sites like "Mi'kmaq/Ancient Egyptian Connection" from surfacing, wherein we find that the ancient Egyptians made it not only to Nova Scotia, but all the way to Illinois and... Australia!

Now, I know the Egyptians were pretty cool.  But if you're gonna make a claim like that, I'm gonna need something more than a few chance correspondences between words and symbols before I buy in.

But the "have an answer at all costs" crowd wouldn't let it lie, especially once the Mormons got involved, and used Fell's so-called research to support their contention that the Native Americans were descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

Why can't we just say "we don't know?"  Why can't we focus on the reality -- the Mi'kmaq and other Native groups made their way to North America at some unspecified time in the past, and (more specifically) Catherine and Edmée LeJeune had some North African ancestry somewhere -- and consider how awesome the process of knowing is?  We can actually use blood samples from distant descendants of long-dead individuals to determine the movements of groups of people thousands, or tens of thousands, of years ago.

Cool, no?

Not cool enough, apparently.  We need THE ANSWER.

Now, let me be clear on this: there's something to be said for having a correct picture of what's going on.  But when there's uncertainty, it's critical to be comfortable with a partial answer, and even more critical to understand the whole context of knowledge within which we are working.  In the long haul, I'm happier knowing about mtDNA and the migration of human groups than I would be just to have a final answer to fill in for my distant foremothers' birthplace.

But unfortunately, I appear to be in the minority.


  1. Your little sample dialog, I think where it went wrong was at, "Then I'll mark it wrong." I wonder what if you'd instead said, "Then we can discuss it and see whether you can make a good case for your answer. I have an answer in mind that I think is the only one that makes sense, but my concern is whether you've studied the material and can argue convincingly -- not whether you agree with me."

  2. "Or, if you just want to agree that your answer is wrong because you didn't study, then we don't have to discuss it; I can just mark it wrong. Your call."

  3. The World Series is a misnomer.
    The World Cup is not.
    If America won the World Cup... soccer, which has long-struggled to gain popularity in America, would become an American "tradition" overnight.

    There's no place for losers in America. Only winners. And winners always get the right answer.

  4. There's a guy up here in Canadaland named Tim Hudak. He's running for Premier of Ontario as a member of the Progressive Conservatives (kind of like the Canadian equivalent of a Republican Governor) only there's nothing progressive about him, or his party. Think, Tea Party morons with funny accents who apologize a lot.

    Anyhoo... since we're in the midst of a provincial election here there was a debate and people got to ask questions and the talking heads stood in front of the cameras and did their best to do everything but actually answer the questions.

    Rightly so, a question about education came up. It went something like, "If you become Premier what are you going to do to improve education in Ontario."

    It was a totally loaded question since all the party's platforms have been release and hacked apart by the media already but nevertheless there it was, out there, for the three party leaders to answer.

    Tim Hudak went first, and after telling a wonderful story about his special needs daughter (uncertain if she's in the public school system or not) he goes on to say that he's going to do so many things to improve education. The two he chose to share with everyone watching?

    1) Larger class sizes. He wants to take classes already approaching 30 kids and make them as big as 34.

    2) He'll introduce two new tests! Yes, that's right, not one but TWO new tests. One in math and one in science in two different grades. This will, "give our children the skills they need to succeed in the twenty-first century"


  5. The interesting thing is that, if one is open minded they can understand the full picture that occurred without letting their ego get involved when looking for what an answer is. I am glad you did not let that happen Mr. Bonnet, however, as you understand, most people that descend from these women do tend to ignore the study results. I am descended from all three of these LeJeune siblings, which additionally includes their brother, Pierre LeJeune II. Whereas, they were all non-Mi'kmaw people, Pierre II's son Martin married a full-blooded Mi'kmaw woman and I descend from this couple. This comprises a piece of my Mi'kmaq ancestry. The Process of analyzing the full picture of the LeJeune's of Acadia turned out to be much more confusing, interesting, and rewarding, than just getting an answer. The process is what learning is all about. Keep spreading the word man. P.S. What's up, my long lost Acadian cousin? ;) (LeJeune side)