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Topic section: One big family
TOPIC SECTION:
One big family
Picture: 10319200s4.jpg
Our varied appearances are partly due to the genes we inherit from our parents.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Our family forms a large part of our identity. We are linked with our family in various ways. We look, unscientifically, for inherited traits – perhaps we will emulate one of our more successful ancestors. We like to think we have our father’s eyes or our mother’s hair. Nicholas Christenfeld and Emily Hill of the University of California at San Diego have claimed that babies look like their fathers, but other researchers have disputed their findings.

One of the most compelling attractions of both traditional and genetic genealogy is the surprise factor – the discovery of unexpected ancestral links. Our reaction to this historical and scientific fact is conditioned by our cultural background. A snob would be disappointed to find that they are descended from serfs rather than du
A member of the BNP might be disconcerted to discover that their ancestor was African
kes, but someone who is proud of their working-class links would be happy to be the great-grandson of a factory worker. A member of the British National Party might be disconcerted to discover that their ancestor was African. A Scottish person might prefer to have a Viking ancestor rather than an English one (although one hardly excludes the other). Rather than obtaining our identity from our genetic ancestry, we use it to reinforce the ethnic or social identity we have created for ourselves, based on our family background and childhood experiences. As genetic genealogy becomes more widely available and better understood, it is possible that we will create new forms of identity based on our genetic heritage. Perhaps websites and societies will be based on a common ancestor such as Jasmine or Helena (two of Brian Sykes’s ‘Eves’) instead of surnames.

Picture: 10315677s4.jpg
A miner and his family, Rhondda. Our family and its class background forms a large part of our identity.
Credit: NMPFT/Daily Herald Archive
Genealogy can be seen as divisive, emphasising how we (as individuals) are different from other people, focussing on us rather than others. Yet most family history shows how we are connected with each other. Genetics shows these interconnections even more strongly, illustrating how different groups of people have mingled throughout history. In the end, we are all mongrels – and surprisingly close relatives as well. The famous geneticist Richard Lewontin argued in 1972 that the genetic variation between different populations is much less than between, say, the great apes. Subsequent research has supported this thesis: the DNA sequences of one person and another are 99.9 per cent identical. It is possible that this homogeneity arose as a result of a near extinction of the human race around 71,000 years ago. If this hypothesis is correct, all six billion of us today are descended from the 15,000 survivors of the Toba volcanic eruption. It would seem that we are all related to each other, one way or another.
 
 
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Topic section: Tracing your ancestors could save your life
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Some medical conditions are caused by changes in our genetic material. They can be passed from one generation to the next. Genealogy allows researchers to trace back some of these conditions to their human origins.  > more

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Topic section: To find an ancestor, get a DNA test
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Using genealogy, we can sometimes track our ancestors over a couple of centuries. Genetics can do much more: it can link people who died thousands of years ago to their modern-day descendants.  > more

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Topic section: DNA and ethnic identity
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When we combine genetics with archaeology, linguistics and history, we can go even further back, to the very origins of human civilisation.  > more
 
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