Blog 2: DNA and national identity

by | Oct 3, 2017 | DNA | 0 comments

In July 2016 The Telegraph ran an article entitled ‘How British Are You?’ The article reported an study that looked at 15000 users of its DNA sequencing service. Amongst other things the study looked for DNA matches with ‘Anglo-Saxon’, and this is the definition of ‘British’ that the Telegraph decided to emphasise. The average resident of the UK (that takes this test) is 36.94% Anglo-Saxon, 21.59% Celtic, 19.91% Western European, 9.2% Scandinavia, with other elements from the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, Greece, with smatterings of European Jewish, Finland, Russia, Eastern Europe. The article demonstrates the way that DNA sampling for family history purposes is being turned into data. Participants might discover their individual ancestry, but their information is being read back into the archive to make suggestions about current population definitions. Of course, without bioarchaeology – work on population genetics, on sampling of ancient DNA, on language formation – the data would have no particular way of being understood. It is being ‘read’ in relation to ethnicity and made to mean. This reading of the contemporary is dependent on an understanding of DNA in history, a conceptualising of ethnicity at a point in the past that is dependent on historical interpretation and definition of that ethnicity.

Christine Kenneally’s popular science book illustrates the effect of this:

DNA and our life experiences make our bodies palimpsests. As we learn how to interpret the body in the context of its genetic code, we begin to understand how the hand of fate, the choices of families, and the enormous journey of DNA through deep time affect our lives right now.[1]

It is important that we audit and engage with the ways that this is being understood popularly, and the effects this has on wider understanding of DNA, genetics more generally, and history.

The Telegraph article suggested that people from Yorkshire were the most ‘British’, and was illustrated with images of cricket, tea, and various Yorkshire sights such as the Ribblehead Viaduct. It is a strange article that seeks to define a type of Britishness even when the data appears to be pointing toward a much more hybrid sense of identity. Quotes from various Ancestry figures back this up as they point out that ‘The UK has been a cultural and ethnic melting pot for not just generations, but centuries’.[2] Coming a month after the controversial Brexit vote in the UK this report was covered in the News section of the paper and testified to a continuing interest in nationality, ethnicity, and DNA. It also shows a particular tendency to associate a type of ‘Britishness’ with Anglo-Saxon genetic identity. The Anglo-Saxons are an immigrant group, of course, but also one associated with establishing the nation of ‘England’ in terms of land organisation, institutional development, and government. Whilst we might expect that the press interpretation of the data might lean to the popular, Ancestry’s own reporting participated in lazy clichés: ‘Live in the East of England and always wondered why you have a strong penchant for pizza, pastries and gyros? It might have something to do with the East of England having the most Italian/Greek (Southern European) ancestry (2.53%) and Western European (French/German) (22.52%) ancestry, as well as the highest amount from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain/Portugal) (3.43%)’.[3]

The article and the Ancestry blog read contemporary identity, via DNA sequencing and markers, in relation to historical ethnic groups. In particular, the Anglo-Saxon group (c.450-1100), and Celts, are articulated as somehow connected to communities in the now. This is an amazingly complicated thing to assume, defining a body – a set of cells, a collection of genes, some genetic information coded into a sample – physiologically, geographically, nationally and historically.[4] The complex version of nation identity that is expressed here (particularly, an English nationalism) is dependent on contemporary clichés and identity codes (tea, pizza) being reinforced by genetic science and popular historical understanding. Somehow, encoded within our contemporary bodies, and identifiable through technological sequences, a type of national identity is woven into the very building blocks of our cells. DNA information is something that makes the contemporary human multitemporal, complex. Our bodies cannot lie to us, and the evidence to be found within them presents us with irrefutable proof of something. However what that is will be immediately interpreted through a contemporary lense, can only be understood as affirmation of a set of identity signifiers that are clearly nothing to do with anything physiological. As Catherine Nash has repeatedly argued, DNA and genealogy are linked clearly to concepts of nationhood. Similarly Nadia Abu El-Haj has suggested that ‘In the here and now, genomic knowledge is being harnessed in efforts to reconstruct histories both individual and collective’.[5] Yet as suggested, the data may actually point to something a lot more hybrid, as many scholars have repeatedly suggested. Certainly the results are being interpreted variously in the media, as I will discuss next week.

Also this week

I ran, with Tanya Evans, the ‘International Family History Workshop’. There will be film, blogs, and images from this circulated in the next weeks. It was terrific to meet many committed and thoughtful family historians from Manchester and around who happily participated in some really conceptually complicated discussions!


[1] Christine Kenneally, The Invisible History of the Human Race, 2014, p. 264.

[2] Brad Argent quoted in Kristen Hyde, ‘How British Are You?’, blog, 13 September 2016, [accessed 13 January 2017].

[3] Kristen Hyde, ‘How British Are You?’.

[4] Catherine Nash, Genetic Geographies: The Trouble with Ancestry (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

[5] El-Haj, The Genealogical Science (Chicago, IL: Chicago UP, 2012), p. 3.


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