by Razib Khan
Who are you? Where do you come from?
These are fundamental questions that we as human beings ask.
Genetics is one part of the answer and an important one. Some of the genetic aspects are very near and dear. As Judith Rich Harris has outlined in “The Nurture Assumption” on the order of half of the variation in psychological traits within the human population can be explained by variation in genes. This will not surprise many people, and the importance of it is plain to anyone.
But what about “deep history”? What does it matter who your great-great-great-great-grandparents were?
One can make some sort of reasoned appeal to common values that we share today to make sense of our genealogical curiosity.
For example, Richard Dawkins is wont to say that “We are all Africans.” Many view this as a strike against racism, and it is a reference to the fact that the overwhelmingly dominant ancestral heritage of modern humans derives from an African population which flourished on the order of 50- to 100-thousand years ago. On the one hand, this is a blink in the eye of evolution. On the other, these time-scales are not intuitively graspable for the human mind. Geologically it is shallow time, but genealogically it is deep time.
But we don’t need to look just to the broad sociological implications of human evolutionary genetics to bring home the power of the past. We can understand through simple illustration in human lives. It is not uncommon in Poland for Neo-Nazis to find out that they have Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. When this ancestry is brought to light, often the individuals change their own lives, some becoming Jewish in a religious and cultural sense.
We can rationally decompose why, but ultimately who we perceive ourselves to be is deeply informed by our understanding of our genealogy. We always are what we are, but how we think about what we are colors our whole lives. There is less need to explain, than simply accept, that this is how we are as human beings. Passion keeps reason on a leash.
That is why one can not undertake a project such as myOrigins without some trepidation.
Attempting to unravel the strands of peoples’ ancestries will, by its nature, venture into sensitive and life-changing territory. It must be done with attention to the facts, but also the lived reality of individuals, and the emotional impact that it has upon lives and lineages. We are not planting seeds in barren, newly exposed territory, rather, genetic information is tossed in with a rich and thick stew of human self-understanding.
Genetics comes not to overturn understanding, rather, it aims to complement and perhaps ultimately hasten a completion.
When looking at family relationships, there is a ready-made intellectual framework that you can leverage. You know your grandparents. You have an intuitive sense that your genealogical network extends back unto the generations, a tree of family history fading into the mists of the past. But myOrigins is more, as it plumbs deeper depths.
Rather than the history of your family, myOrigins attempts to place your genetic makeup in a broader framework of variation and relatedness that is the outcome of a sequence of separations and reunions.
Our history as a species on the scale of the past 50 to 100 thousand years is less a tree than a gnarled bush encased in overgrown vines. When the ancestors of non-Africans left 50 thousand years ago, they dispersed and diversified. But they did not incubate their futures in an isolated fastness. Almost every modern human population seems to be the product of reunion between the long-lost cousin branches. Human history is a matter of separations and amalgamations.
As a concrete example, if you took an average German and created a map shaded by the number of their ancestors in a given location 10,000 years ago, you would see a deep and rich color across much of Europe. But you’d probably see nearly as much in the Middle East. And likely other tints and hues reaching deep into the heart of Asia out toward Siberia.
In other words, an average person today is not just the collapse of a genealogical bramble but the geographical instantiation of human migrations that span the whole globe. This is why we shied away from using straightforward national labels for myOrigins clusters; the past is not always a rearrangement of the present, even if the present is always a rearrangement of the past.
Europeans, as we understand Europeans today, genetically did not exist 10,000 years ago. South Asians as we understand them did not exist 10,000 years ago. Ashkenazi Jews as we understand them did not exist 2,500 years ago. The modern labels we give a genetic cluster may impart the illusion of ancient permanence which does not comport with what we know about the migrations and the melting pot that seems to be human demographic history.
The goal of myOrigins was to give geographically relevant answers to people about their deep ancestry.
You are a combination of a finite set of clusters, which capture much, if not all, of the texture of human history. But most individuals are also a pattern that is a synthesis of distinct threads, crystallized during the Pleistocene, and stitched back together by the welter of the Neolithic revolutions. Peeling far enough back, all trees turn back upon themselves as genes flow across the gap and make what was distinct admixed. Many of the myOrigins clusters themselves are ancient fusions that have taken upon a new life of their own as signposts of human demographic history.
Ultimately this is not a strange tale if you collapse it back to more comprehensible genealogical scales.
Your great-grandparents were representatives of distinct branches of human history, some overlapping, some disparate. They came together and produced offspring and so forth. Each generation was different from the past, something new, something different, something unique.
And so it is with the genetic clusters that emerge out of distinct historical events. They are reconfigurations of the timeless and shine a light onto future possibilities.