WITH RICHARD LEWONTIN
Richard Lewontin, Alexander Agassiz Professor Emeritus of
Zoology at Harvard University, is one of the world's most eminent
authorities on human diversity. He has written many celebrated
books on evolution and human variation books including Human Diversity,
Not in Our Genes and most recently, The Triple Helix.
Does racial difference exist on a genetic level?
Peoples who have
occupied major geographical areas for much of the recent evolution
of humans look different from one another. Sub-Saharan Africans
have dark skin and people who live in East Asia tend to have a
light tan skin and an eye color and eye shape and hair that is
different than Europeans. So there is this kind of genetic - it
is genetic - differentiation of some features of the body between
people who live in Central Asia, Africa, Europe, North America,
and South America.
And those features, which are geographically
determined, were used to erect notions of different races. There's
the African race, the Black race, the Yellow race, the Red race,
the Brown race, and the White race. And it's mostly skin color
plus hair shape and eye shape and so on. That's the everyday observation,
that "they" all look alike - and we all look different.
real question is not whether those differences in skin color and
hair form are genetic, because they are. We know that because
the children of black slaves brought to North America were the
same color as their parents were. The question is what else does
that tell us about biological differences? How much difference
in other genes beside the genes that are relevant to skin color
is there between these major geographical groups?
If we want
to use the notion of race in a sensible, biological way, we could
only do that if there really were a lot of genetic difference
between those groups aside from the superficial differences that
we can see. And that's an important issue which we now understand.
We understand it because over the years a lot of data were gathered
by anthropologists and geneticists looking at blood group genes
and protein genes and other kinds of genes from all over the world.
Anthropologists just went around taking blood out of everybody.
must say, if I were a South American Indian, I wouldn't have let
them take my blood, but they did. And one of the consequences
of that is by the early 1970s, we had a huge amount of information
about the different genetic forms all over the world for a large
number of genes that had no relevance to those outward manifestations
like skin color, but had to do with blood type and proteins.
when you brought all that together, it became pretty clear that
there really were minor differences in the frequencies of the
different gene forms between the major geographical so-called
Since the 20th century, it's been recognized that there's
what's called polymorphism of blood type. There are type As and
type Bs and type Os and Rh-positive and Rh-negative and so on
in every group in the world. But the assumption was that people
in Africa would have a very different relative frequency of A
and B and O than people would in North America or in Europe and
And what all these studies showed was that that wasn't
true. That you couldn't really tell the difference between an
African population and a European population and an Asian population
by looking at the frequency, the relative proportions of the different
blood types. They were essentially the same in all these groups.
That isn't true for every blood type. There are occasional
types which are strongly differentiated between populations. There's
one blood type called the Duffy blood type and that's very different
between Asians, Africans, and Europeans. But that's an exception
rather than a rule.
For almost every gene we know, either everybody
in the world has the same form of the gene, in which case all
human beings are the same, or if there's variation, the frequencies
of the different variants are the same relatively speaking, close
to the same, in Africans, Asians, North Americans, Austro-Asians,
and so on. And only about - well, I estimated 7% of all of human
genetic variation could be ascribed to differences between groups,
between major races. Anyway, about 75% of all the genes [come
in only one form and] are identical in everybody. So there's very
How do you measure human genetic variation?
way we measure human variation genetically is to look and find
all the different forms of a particular gene, the alternative
forms of a gene, and then see what percentage of the population
has form one, form two, form three, form four, form five, and
so on. Now if 99% of the population has one form and only 1% has
another then there isn't much genetic variation in the population
for that. And if different populations all have 99% of form one
and 1% of form two, then there's no differentiation between populations
because they have all the same percentages.
If on the other
hand one population had 99% of form one and 1% of form two but
some other population had 99% of form two and only 1% of form
one, then even though within the population almost everybody is
the same, between the populations there'd be a big difference.
So that's the way you characterize it. You see the percentages
of the different forms in different populations and you ask --
If I take a sample from one population, are proportions of the
different forms similar whether it's an African population or
an Asian population or a European population? If so, there's no
difference BETWEEN populations, and all the difference is found
So what did you discover about population differences?
Well, the problem back then for evolutionists and
population geneticists was always to try to actually characterize
how much genetic variation there was between individuals and groups
and so on. And nobody knew how to do that because you had to connect
genes with some outward manifestation that you could actually
observe, and most genes don't have an outward manifestation in
So people didn't really know whether individuals
varied genetically a lot from one another or only a little bit.
They could see variation between individuals but they didn't know
how much of all the genes that variation represented. And for
a very long time, nobody had the faintest idea how genetically
variable our species was from individual to individual.
I spent a lot of time worrying about that like other people in
my profession. And then I met a guy who had an experimental gimmick
and he didn't know what to do with it, but I knew what to do with
it. So I was sort of a person with a problem without a method
and he was a guy with a method without a problem and we got together.
And that method was essentially to extract proteins from individuals
and to run them in an electric field and to see whether the proteins
moved at different rates in an electric field. If there were alternative
forms of the genes that were for that protein, then the proteins
would move at a different rate in the electric field, and you
could visually identify the proteins by staining them.
you did is you ground up a fruit fly, you stuck it in a slab of
jello, you turned on the current, all the proteins moved in the
jello, and you turned off the current. You stained it, and sure
enough you would see that different individuals had the same protein
moving different distances. And that would be because they had
a different form of the same gene.
And that method, which is
called gel electrophoresis, a very fancy name, we were able to
use it on any organism at all. If you could grind it up, you could
do it, and that included people. You didn't have to grind up the
whole person, but you could take a little bit of tissue or blood;
you could do it on flies, on mice, on plants, on bacteria, anything.
And the result was for 20 years people interested in this question
of genetic variation were grinding up organisms and measuring
the genetic variation.
And what they discovered was that organisms
within a species were tremendously genetically different one from
another. Many people had said, "No, they're all the same because
any genetic differences are mutations and they will be selected
out by natural selection. And except for a few superficial differences,
everybody in a species is the same."
But that's not true. It
turns out that between 25-33% of genes within a species are of
the variable kind. They differ from one individual to another.
And that's what that method discovered, that something around
a quarter or a third of all your genes -- not your genes, but
genes of any organism -- are variable between individuals of the
species. So that gave us a different view of the possibility of
evolution. And I thought, "Well, this raises the possibility that
we could ask how much genetic differentiation there is between
humans in different population groups."
It had already been
established by a guy named Harry Harris that there was a lot of
this genetic variation in humans, the kind that we have found
in fruit flies, that people have found in plants. He used the
same technique and showed that humans are genetically variable.
But what he didn't know was how much difference there was between
Africans and Asians and Europeans and so on. But a certain amount
of that data began to accumulate, and by 1972 a lot of those data
We could then tell from older data on human blood
groups, which were known for a long time, and from this more recent
data on their proteins which we could visualize in these gels,
how much difference there was between any two individuals genetically
and between a collection of individuals from France and a collection
of individuals from French Equatorial Africa, and from Asia. And
that collection of data is now huge, I mean, we know an immense
amount about that kind of protein variation in humans. That was
before people were sequencing DNA. That's when we were just looking
at people's proteins.
And so I thought, "Well, we've got enough
of this data, let's see what it tells us about the differences
between human groups." And so I just looked into the literature,
and that literature was in books and so on. And so one day I was
going to give a lecture, I think it was in Carbondale, Illinois,
or somewhere south. I was working in Chicago at the time. So I
took a couple of these books with me and a pad of paper, and a
table of logarithms which I needed for this purpose, and a little
hand calculator, and I sat on this bus trip for three or four
hours looking at the books, picking out the data, looking it up
in the table of logarithms, doing a calculation, and writing it
down in tables.
And when I got back after the round trip I
had all the data I needed to write the paper about how much human
genetic variation there was, and so I did it. And that's been
repeated in recent years using DNA and so on. You always get the
same result. Shows you it's worthwhile being afraid to fly, by
the way, because you have lots of time on a bus to work.
So how much difference is there between human groups?
And the numbers
come out as follows:
Roughly speaking for human beings, for
about three-quarters of all our genes, everybody in the world,
except a rare individual, has only one form of the gene. So all
human beings share that form. For the 25%-33% or so of those genes
for which there is some variation - 99 to one or 50/50 or 75/25
of different forms - for almost all of those genes, it doesn't
matter from which population you take the sample; they have the
same proportions. That is to say, if it's 75% of Form One and
25% of Form Two in Europeans, it's 70% of Form One and 30% of
Form Two in Africans and 73% of Form One and 27% of Form Two in
Asians, and so on. Most genes are like that.
But there are
a very few genes, like the Duffy blood group, in which in Asian
populations there is one very common form, in African populations
there are two forms, but they're not the same as the common one
in Asians, and in Europeans there's another different ratio. So
for that gene, there's a big difference in the frequencies, but
And if you put it all together - and we've now
done that for proteins, for blood groups, and now with DNA sequencing,
we have it for DNA sequence differences - it always comes out
the same: 85% of all the variation among human beings is between
any two individuals WITHIN any local population, 85% of all the
variation; please remember that 75% of all genes are identical
for everybody. But of the variation there is, 85% of that is between
individuals within Sweden or within Denmark or within the Ewee
or the Ki-kuyu or the Chinese or something.
Of the remaining
15% of human variation, it's roughly a 50/50 split of the variation
between nationalities within what used to be called a major race,
between Swedes, Italians, French, and so on, or between Ewee and
Ki-kuyu and Zulu or something. And the other remaining 7% or so
is between those major groups -- the blacks, browns, yellows,
red, and whites.
What does that tell us about race?
it might have turned out that there were big genetic differences
between groups, and that most genes were highly differentiated
between the major races. Now, if that turned out to be true, then
at least it would be a possibility, although not demonstrated,
that there might be, as some like to dream, high differentiations
between groups in their mental abilities or in their temperaments
or anything like that. Although nobody knew about any genes for
those things, at least it was a living possibility.
we found that there were practically no genetic differences between
groups except skin color and body form and a few things like that,
it became a great deal less likely and less interesting to talk
about genetic differences between groups. And the consequence
is that from the biological standpoint those major so-called races
- black, brown, yellow, white, and red - were not biologically
And that in turn meant that the differences that
people were constantly emphasizing for social purposes were social
constructs which almost certainly didn't have any biological basis.
And therefore we should stop talking about major races because
to talk about major races gave the impression that there were
big differences between these groups in things that mattered -
I mean, skin color, after all, doesn't matter except in some vague
aesthetic sense - but things that really mattered: people's characters,
their intelligence, their behavior, whether they're going to compete
with other people or not and so on. The evidence then became that
there weren't any interesting differences in such things, and
so we should stop talking about race.
What causes different skin colors?
Well, the fact of the matter is that geneticists
don't know anything about the genes that influence most characteristics
of human interest. In fact, we don't even know where and how many
genes there are that influence skin color - which is certainly
influenced by genes, we know that. We don't know how many genes
there are. We don't know where they are. We don't know anything
about genes for schizophrenia or manic depression or dependency
on drugs. Nothing. Zero. People keep making claims, and they take
them back again.
Now why it is that people in these different
groups evolved different skin colors is an open question. Nobody
knows that. People have tried to tell us stories about it - stories
like, well if you live where there's a lot of sun it's a good
thing to have black skin so you wouldn't get skin cancer. But
that really doesn't work, because it is true, you're more likely
to get skin cancer if you get a lot of sun and you don't have
dark skin, but that skin cancer doesn't come on until you're past
your reproductive age anyway. So that wouldn't have any effect
on your evolution.
The best guess these days is that the reason
that people have different hair forms and eye shapes and skin
colors, those outward manifestations, is something that Darwin
called sexual selection. For some crazy reason which I can't understand,
people in Europe liked washed-out looking people and they tended
to select them for their mates, and the consequence is the Europeans
became washed-out looking. Whereas people in Africa preferred
dark people and so they became dark just by selective mating.
And it would be exactly those outward manifestations like eye
shape and hair shape and skin color that would have that effect.
Nobody can select their mate on the basis of blood group because
you don't know what your mate's blood group is. So for those things
which couldn't be subject to this kind of visual selection, mating
selection, no differentiation occurred.
Why do people still hold on to biological explanations of
of all, race is a social reality. I mean, there are people who
are dark skinned and they are called black, and that's a social
reality. You can't deny that. The question is why people hold
onto that social reality. There are two reasons, one optimistic
one, mainly that just because an idea changes or is seen to be
without a basis, it doesn't go away right away. It takes time
as human generations go on.
But more than that, race and racial categorizations serve a very
important social function, namely, they justify the inequalities
that exist in a society which is said to be based on equality.
Why is it that if all men are created equal - not women, notice,
but men - if all men are created equal, then why is there a much
greater proportion of black people in jail than white people?
Is it possible that people are not
treating them fairly? "No," you say, "that can't be, because we
live in a society of equality." So the easy answer is, "Well,
they're in jail because more black people ought to be in jail
because black people have genes that make them criminals." And
the beauty of that ideology that it justifies what is the greatest
social agony of American life, certainly, and partly, European
life - namely, the huge social inequalities between groups in
a society which claims to be a society of equality.
have to cope with that, you have to somehow become at ease with
it, because the alternative is to demand a real revolution in
social relations, and that's not easy to do.
What is biological determinism?
Biological determinism is this notion that everything
that's important about human beings and the differences between
them and their position in the world is determined internally
by their biological natures. And I think in our world, the importance
of biological determinism really goes back to the American Revolution
and the notion that we were going to build a society of equality.
"All men are created equal; they're endowed by their Creator with
certain inalienable rights, etc."
And the problem with that
is, you look around and you see people don't have equality of
wealth or power or status. And the problem then, is to explain
how it is that in a society which is supposed to be built on equality
there's so much inequality. And that was a problem that also bothered
the English as well and the French in the 19th century; everybody
was concerned with explaining tremendous social inequalities despite
the fact that they were living in these societies which revolutions
had occurred to make equality.
And there are really only two
solutions to that problem. Either it was all fake to begin with
- maybe the revolutions weren't really meant to produce equality;
they were just meant to get some people in power instead of the
old people - or the alternative is people are as equal as they
can be. The reason they're not more equal is because there are
in-built, unchangeable, blood-determined differences between them.
(When they said blood, now we talk about genes. But it's the same
thing.) Society has just equalized as much as it can and the people
now who are in superior position are there because of their biological
So that social stratification, social differences,
difference in status, wealth, and power are all largely a consequence
of your biological nature, which is unchangeable. And that's what
biological determinism is. The structure of society is fixed,
and it's fixed for biological reasons.
And then there's another
side to it. And the other side is you say, "Well okay, suppose
it's really true that there are unchangeable differences between
individuals. Some people by their biology could be professors
and others could be only janitors." You could say, "Alright, I'll
accept that, but maybe we should have a society in which both
professors and janitors who are all doing socially useful work,
I guess, are rewarded equally. Why should society give differential
rewards just because some people can do one thing and other people
can do another?"
And then we have a new form of biological determinism,
the kind of thing you see in evolutionary psychology and socio-biology,
which says, "Well, but it's part of biological human nature to
create hierarchical societies." So it's impossible biologically
to make a society in which everybody gets equal status and wealth
and power because they'll naturally create this hierarchies.
biological determinism these days really has two forms, two aspects.
One is that the differences between us are biologically determined
and the second is that we all are similar in one very important
respect, namely we all have human nature, and that human nature
makes us produce hierarchical societies.
What is the relationship between your DNA and how you turn
out as a person?
The word that geneticists use for a description of your outward
manifestations and your physiology and your metabolism and your
anatomy and so on, including your behavior, is phenotype - literally,
"what appears," from the notion of pheno, to appear. And
in theory that's supposed to be the result of the genes that you
have, which are called the genotype.
The question that
geneticists have been struggling with for a very long time is,
What's the relationship between those elements in the genotype,
the DNA, and what comes out at the end of the developmental process,
You have to remember, we start as a fertilized
egg, and that egg goes through cell divisions and becomes a whole
organism, and that organism develops throughout its entire life.
We are all developing continuously. We get taller and then we
get shorter. We get smarter and then we get dumber. That happens
So the question is, What's the relationship between
those inner elements, those genes, the genotype, and the phenotype.
And the answer that we know from years of experimental study and
ordinary observation is that there's no simple one-to-one relationship
between the genotype and the phenotype. The organism is certainly
influenced in powerful ways by the genes - there is no chimpanzee
that will be interviewed on television and say the things I'm
saying now, because chimpanzees don't have the genes to enable
them to speak, to form these abstract ideas, because their brains
are not the right shape and so on.
So clearly differences between
the species are, in some sense, in the genes. But at the same
time it's not the case that every aspect of the phenotype is determined
by the genes, because the environment in which you develop, both
within the womb and after you're born, your whole psychic environment,
your education, what comes in on you, the food you eat, the society
you live in - all that goes to form the phenotype.
can't be anything in the world. As I said, no matter what environment
a chimpanzee lives in it'll never be a professor, although some
professors might be sort of like chimpanzees. No matter what environment
we live in, I think it's extremely unlikely that human beings
will live to be 200 years old, for example, because of our genes.
what's interesting about our phenotypes, about the variation of
phenotypes between individuals, is that they sort of vary continuously
- like heights or shapes or colors - there's not just three different
colors or four different heights, yet the genes exist as discrete
objects which have particular different forms. You can have form
one of the gene or form two of the gene or form three.
have these discreet differences at the genotypic level, which
are somehow converted into continuous variation between individuals
and their behavior and their morphology and their physiology,
and it's kind of like a pointillist painting, in which, if you
stand back from the painting, you see continuous figures, but
when you go up close to them you see that they're made by tiny
little dots of paint which fuse together in your eyes and in your
brain from a distance, but are discreet and individual.
the observer who observers a pointillist painting is performing
an action, is making the phenotype out of that underlying genotype,
so to speak, by the intervention of their eyes and their central
nervous systems. In the same way, our genotype is converted into
a phenotype through the developmental process which is occurring
in a particular environment. And every environment is different,
and environments are changing all the time.
So there's a very
complicated relationship between genotype and phenotype. People
who say, "Well, if only I knew all your genes I'd know exactly
all about you," are wrong. Indeed, the notion that if I cloned
an individual by reproducing that person's genes in another individual,
that the cloned individual would be identical with the ones from
which the genes came, is wrong.
When I was a child, the most
famous people in the world were the Dionne Quintuplets. The Quintuplets
were five girls born in rural Quebec, all identical quintuplets.
And they were dressed alike and they had their hair done alike
and they looked alike, and they were put into a kind of zoo by
their parents and by the doctor who delivered them and by the
province of Ontario. And everybody looked at them and they were
made as alike as they could be so they'd be the wonder of the
modern age. They were clones of each other.
But in fact, when
they got older, when they left this artificial environment, they
became quite different from each other. A couple became nuns,
some were married and some not, two died and three are still alive
- I think a third one died recently. One was schizophrenic, the
others weren't. They were as different from each other as any
five girls could be, although they still looked pretty much alike.
that's the important point: that although a lot of our morphology,
a lot of our facial features appear not to be greatly influenced
by environmental variation, our personalities clearly are tremendously
influenced by it, and our abilities. And the Dionne quintuplets
are a wonderful example.
Is it possible that genes could hold the key to social behaviors?
People are always talking about
genes for things - the genes for athletic ability, the genes for
making money, the genes for intelligence. And you have to be very
careful. Even when there are genes that influence those things,
to talk about them as genes for that is not so clear. And a friend
of mine gave me a wonderful example. He said, "I know where the
genes for knitting are." And I said, "How can you know where those
genes are; what does that mean?"
And he said, "Oh, the genes
for knitting are clearly on the X chromosome, the sex chromosome.
Why? Because, after all, all the people I know who knit have two
x chromosomes, and everybody I know who has one X chromosome and
one Y chromosome doesn't knit, so the gene for knitting has to
be on the X chromosome." And he's right, by the way, that that's
the standard method used by geneticists: you find some genetic
marker and you see that everybody who has that genetic marker
has this trait, everybody who has a different genetic marker has
another trait, so you've discovered the gene for it.
I say the gene for knitting, you're going to laugh, you're going
to say, "That's silly. There can't be a gene for knitting. I know
why people knit." And the reason that we laugh is because we know
the whole story about the gene for knitting. We know that the
genes on the X and Y chromosome are for plumbing, and X chromosome
people have one kind of plumbing and people with a Y chromosome
have a different kind of plumbing. Depending on which plumbing
you're born with, you're socialized as either a female or a male.
And if you're socialized as a female, one of the things you learn
to do is to knit, and if you're socialized as a male, you don't
learn to knit.
So, of course, people with two X chromosomes
knit and people with one X and one Y don't knit. But you wouldn't
want to say that the genes for knitting are there. The point is,
we understand the complete developmental and social story about
why people with two X chromosomes knit and people with one X and
one Y chromosome don't knit. And what's nice about that story
is it was exactly the opposite in the 18th century. In the 18th
century the gene for knitting was on the Y chromosome, because
only men did hand-knitting, not women!
And the reason why men
gave up hand-knitting and left it their wives to do at home is
because someone invented the knitting machine and the men went
into the factory and did knitting on knitting machines and left
the now economically useless work to their wives at home. So maybe
what we should say that we know that the X chromosome has the
genes for doing economically useless work, and the Y chromosome
for doing economically useful work.
When you put it in those
terms, when you really know the complete story, you stop talking
about genes for this and genes for that, and you talk about genes
having some influence on certain physiological anatomical traits,
which are then used as cues by other people.
So, let's talk
about race. I know where the genes for being incarcerated are.
They're the skin color genes. Now, that doesn't mean that those
genes cause you to be incarcerated. What those genes do is to
cause you to have a certain skin color, and social relations and
social arrangements are such that people who have dark skin color
are incarcerated more than people who don't have dark skin color,
but the genes don't make you incarcerated. You have to make that
distinction very clearly.
What do you think about new trends in genetics research?
The so-called "new genetics", which just
puts the action of these biological factors onto a molecular scale,
is still as deterministic as ever. People who are doing molecular
genetics, who are mapping genes in human beings, are trying to
find the genes for schizophrenia, the genes that are responsible
for all sorts of diseases.
The editor of Science magazine,
the most prestigious general science magazine, once was asked
why we should spend a lot of money on the human genome project
when we have all those poor people and homeless people out there,
and his response was, "The best way to get rid of homelessness
is to study people's genes because homelessness is in the genes."
the genome project and molecular genetics are simply a new manifestation
of an old idea - or they're created with that same bias, namely,
the reason we're studying all the genes is because genes determine
everything. If you didn't think genes determined what was really
important in life, then why would you go and spend all this money
and time studying the human genome?
Look, people said, when
the human genome project was floated, once we know what the human
genome is, when we see all the genes, we'll know what it is to
be human. A very famous biologist said that. So if you really
think you'll learn what it is to be human by studying human genes,
that's why you study them. But of course, we won't know what it
is to be human by studying the genes. That's the error. But nevertheless,
that's what the modern manifestation of biological determinism
Let's take the argument [about genes and homelessness]
as the editor meant it. What he's saying is, Why are people homeless?
Many homeless people are de-institutionalized mentally ill people
or people who have been on drugs or things of that kind. Why are
they on drugs? Because they have a biological dependency on drugs.
Why are they mentally ill? Because they have genes that make them
mentally ill. So that was his reasoning.
Homelessness is not,
for him, simply the usual manifestation of economic inequality.
People who are homeless are homeless because they're in one way
or the other sick, and knowing the genes will cure all the diseases.
That's his claim. Especially drug dependency, schizophrenia, manic
depression, and so forth. They're all due to genes according to
that view. Of course, people have been struggling to find the
genes for schizophrenia and manic-depressive syndrome for a long
time and they haven't found them. Or rather, they keep planning
to find them and then six months later they write a paper saying,
"Oh, we made a mistake. They're not there."
Is biological determinism
another form of racism?
Biological racism is just another manifestation
of the belief that everything is in the genes. So of course, if
people in Africa are not as well off as people in Europe, it's
because they have genes that make them less intelligent and less
ambitious, and so on. And the beauty of the race business is that
you can identify people by just looking at them. You don't even
have to look at their genes because one manifestation of their
genes is there - namely skin color or eye shape or hair shape
- and then that's the key to everything.
So racism, that kind
of biological racism is just part of the general ideology that
everything important is in the genes. And of course, if people
look different then they must have different genes, and to some
extent they do have different genes. And that will explain why
slaves were black and masters were white. So racism is part and
parcel of that whole thing.
Where do our ideas of biological determinism come from?
Biological determinism, which is a desire
to understand social inequality, was really built into most 19th
century English literature. Dickens, whose the great mystery novelist
of the 19th century - all of his mysteries are about the same
thing: How do we explain the character people have? Is it upbringing
or is it internal? And he believed it was internal.
is the most famous example of that. You have to remember Oliver
Twist was born in the workhouse, which was the place you had to
go to get relief after the New Poor Law of 1834. And his mother
was in the workhouse. He was born in the workhouse, he had no
education, he was living with all these other kids on gruel, picking
oakum, doing all the things that little kids in the workhouse
And then when he left the workhouse without any education,
without any culture, without anything, we find him on the road
to London. And he meets on the road to London the Artful Dodger,
a kid somewhat older than he was, a teenager. And the contrast
between Oliver and the Artful Dodger which is drawn by Dickens
is extraordinary. Because the Artful Dodger doesn't speak good
English; he drops all his G's; that's the thing that you would
expect a poor kid from the slums of London to do. And here's Oliver;
he's described as a delicate child, he uses the subjunctive, his
grammar is perfect. Where did he learn all that - in the workhouse,
the most degraded institution of 19th century Britain?
that's the mystery. The mystery of Oliver Twist is how do we explain
the contrast in character between Oliver Twist on the one hand
and the Artful Dodger on the other, both of whom were brought
up under essentially the same miserable circumstances.
at the end of the book you discover that Oliver actually had upper-middle
class parents. And even though he never saw them because his mother
died in childbirth and he never saw his father, the true nature
of that upper-middle class "blood" came out in him, and so he
was a child of great moral character. He was honest, he was delicate,
he used good English, and so on. And that was a working out of
that notion, that what really matters about character is what's
inside, not what's outside.
And he's not the only one. There's
the wonderful story of George Elliott, Daniel Deronda, one of
George Elliott's heroes. We're told right away he's the adopted
son of an English baroness, and he has all the behavior of the
young lord. We meet him in a fashionable watering place and gambling
casino in Germany.
And then mysteriously around the age of
20 or 21, he falls in love with a Jewish woman. Now this is early
19th century Britain. That doesn't happen every day of the week.
The baron falls in love with a Jewish woman. He learns the Talmud,
he converts, and he becomes a Zionist; he actually is one of the
earliest people to want to go to Palestine. What's the secret?
How do you understand that strange business?
It turns out -
and you only discover this at the end of the book - that his mother
is a famous Jewish actress who he finally meets when he's an adult
and it all came through, and he became what his genes made him.
So Dickens is not the only one. And that's true in French literature,
it's true in all literature of the 19th century.
Aren't groups like Icelanders genetically distinct because
they've been more isolated?
Iceland has been in the news a lot recently because
the Icelandic government has awarded the entire Icelandic genome
to a private company to exploit. The claim of this company is
that the reason why they want to have the genotypes of all Icelanders
is because Icelanders are uniquely homogenous people. And why
are they uniquely homogenous? Because, the story is, Iceland was
founded in the 9th century by people who came from Norway - a
very small number of people who came from Norway, just these immigrants.
There was nobody in Iceland when they arrived - that's true -
and all Icelanders at the present time are descended from those
few immigrants at the very beginning, and therefore Icelanders
are all related to each other very closely, and therefore if somehow
we could study their genes we could find the genes for disease
and other things because everybody's related to everybody, and
we could carry out the pedigree.
And so the whole thing is based
on the claim that Iceland is extremely homogenous, genetically.
Now, that's bolstered by the fact that Icelanders speak a language
which elsewhere has been dead for 1500 years; that is to say,
they speak a form of Old Norse which is related to Norwegian and
Swedish but very different. And also they are claimed all to look
alike - they're all sort of reddish-haired or blond and so on
- and they're isolated and they all know each other; it's a very
small country, only a couple hundred thousand people.
of that comes together, this notion that Iceland is a genetic
isolate, a few people came there, they've been genetically isolated
from everybody ever since, and that's why they speak this crazy
language and everything is homogenous.
Now, the trouble is that
we know that that's not true, and we know it from a source which
is in one sense the source of Icelandic national pride, which
is the Icelandic Sagas. The Icelandic Sagas, which were composed
or spoken verbally during the Middle Ages by a variety of Icelandic
authors and eventually written down, tell us the story of the
founding of Iceland, of the wars that the Icelanders, the Vikings,
And they give this impression at first that it's
a very homogenous society. But when you begin to read the sagas,
what you discover is that those early Icelanders, those Vikings,
were in fact making a living doing exactly the same thing that
the Ancient Greeks were doing: namely, half the time they spent
farming, and then half the time they were pirates. They got in
their boats, and they went around raping and pillaging and taking
slaves and just warring everywhere, and that's what Vikings were.
Vikings were pirates. And they didn't try to excuse it; that was
the way of life the Sagas described.
And in the process of that
piratical existence, they took slaves, they brought people back
to Iceland from other countries. There a wonderful place in I
think it's Egil's Saga, which is a story of a guy who wants to
buy a concubine. So he goes to Russia and he deals with a Russian
trader, and the Russian trader asks him a certain price for this
concubine. He said he had a dozen of these women in his hut. And
the Icelander says, "Wait a minute, I'm not going to pay that.
That's much more than the usual price for a woman slave."
there was a usual price, which meant that Icelanders were doing
this all the time. They were getting women and bringing them back.
If you look around northern Scotland, you see lots of town names
- this "ness" and that "ness" - Loch Ness, Inverness, so on. Ness
is an Iceland word; it means cape. Those are all the places the
Icelanders landed and took their slaves. One of the sagas is all
about the fighting in the Orkney Islands and how the Icelanders
landed in the Orkneys and established their position there and
So Iceland, in fact, is a place made up, yes, partly of descendants
of those early Viking ancestors who fled from Norway to escape
the king, but in large part also from slaves they took, from people
they brought from all over, and became part of the Icelandic genetic
pool. So Iceland turns out, in fact, when you look at Icelanders,
when you look at their proteins, you look at their DNA, they turn
out to be not any more genetically homogenous than Swedes, Germans,
English, French, all of Northern Europe. They look like a typical
Northern European country.
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