Genetic research can open book on Jewish identity — for good and bad
Father William Sanchez wears a Star of David pendant on the same chain as his crucifix, and he keeps a menorah in his parish office. After a DNA test confirmed his Sephardic roots, the Albuquerque priest has been actively reconciling this discovery with his Catholic beliefs.
“Knowledge of my Jewish ancestry has provoked me to question things, yes,” Sanchez says in the book, “Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People” by Jon Entine (Grand Central, 2007).
Looking back over his childhood in New Mexico, Sanchez now recognizes the Jewish signs: his parents shunning pork, spinning tops during Christmas and covering the mirrors at home if someone in the family died.
For Crypto-Jews like Sanchez, DNA testing services can confirm or disprove suspicions about a hidden Jewish family history, uncover unknown genetic disease risks or inspire greater exploration of Judaism. For small populations in Africa and Asia, genetic research has shed light on claims of Jewish ancestry and provided a better understanding of Jewish migration over thousands of years.
But critics fear that Jewish genetic research also opens a Pandora’s box. The discovery of a shared genetic marker among men who claim to be descended from Kohanim grew into wild, exaggerated claims in the media that geneticists had confirmed the story of Aaron. Some have decried research exploring a genetic basis for Ashkenazi intelligence as politically incorrect and racist, since all humans are 99.9 percent similar.
Entine, who will be speaking at Adat Chaverim and Brandeis-Bardin this weekend, believes exploring that .1 percent is worth getting researchers riled up.
An American Enterprise Institute fellow and former NBC news producer, Entine is no stranger to controversy. He tackled the topic of race in sports with “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It” (PublicAffairs Books, 1999), which was lauded by Scientific American as a “well-researched, relatively thorough and lucidly written case.”
After “Taboo” was published, Entine learned his sister had breast cancer. As a teenager, he had lost his mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer over a period of three years. The family assumed it was a coincidence at the time, but recent genetic testing revealed the BRCA2 genetic mutation contributed to his sister’s cancer.
Since Entine has a young daughter, he decided to undergo testing, which confirmed he carries the mutation. The experience inspired him to research the link between Jews and DNA.
The result is “Abraham’s Children,” a survey of Jewish genetic research paired with a chronicle of Jewish history that explores the thorny question: “Who is a Jew?”
Entine writes that Jewishness is a function of religion and ancestry, shaped by faith, politics and culture. Given the Jewish community’s historically insular nature, most Jews also share genetic markers, which speaks to common ancestors.
This commonality inspired research in the 1990s that found the Cohen Modal Haplotype, a set of six identical genetic markers shared among Ashkenazic and Sephardic Kohanim, passed from father to son on the Y chromosome, which doesn’t change much over time and may have originated with a common ancestor. While the genetic markers alone do not prove the existence of Aaron, they can be seen to confirm a biblical tradition.
The haplotype, however, is also not unique to Jews — Kurds, Armenians, southern and central Italians share these same markers but to a lesser extent.
Gene test kits — can they lead to dating services?
A company called 23andme.com launched recently and got wads of media attention for being the first user-friendly Web site devoted to home genomics tests and analysis. For just $1,000, the company will take a swab of your cheek, sequence your genome and tell you a bunch of things about how you fit into the family of humanity. It will also allegedly give you nifty details about yourself, such as whether you have athletic abilities or a propensity for disease.
And 23andme is just the beginning. Another company called DeCode offers a similar service called DeCodeMe, and more are sure to follow. People are desperate to understand themselves, and so they turn to genetics as if it were a self-help manual instead of a still poorly understood science.
While there are many theories about how genetic expression works on our personalities and health, there are few solid facts. Some tests, such as those for various kinds of developmental disabilities, have provable results. But many genetic tests, like those 23andme claim can reveal “athletic ability,” are the biotech version of snake oil.
The question I keep asking about home genomics kits is whether they’re any worse than, say, parts of the self-help industry. Both promise to fix people by making vague pronouncements based on a little science mixed with a lot of rank speculation.
Both do help people figure themselves out some of the time. And both are often quite costly — therapy can go for hundreds of dollars an hour and so can self-help classes.
I’m wondering, essentially, if there’s something exploitative about the services sold by 23andme. Probably not — or no more so than the chocolate sold by Godiva, which is also shockingly expensive and basically useless. If people want to pony up the cash to have a little fun, why not?
But I don’t think it is just a little fun, like chocolate or “find the inner you” classes are. What I see when I look at a site like 23andme is nothing less than the future of eugenics. I don’t mean the scary capital E eugenics of the 1930s that involved killing Jews and sterilizing “loose women.” I mean wild-type eugenics, the kind of genetic engineering that happens in nature without any dictatorial intervention.
It’s the sort of eugenics that results when people of the same race and class tend to marry each other. It’s the genetic engineering that results when men can choose their mates but women can’t.
23andme and Web sites of its ilk are just one step away from becoming social networks based on genetics, like Facebook for people who want to compare genes instead of beer bongs. Currently that’s not what 23andme is trying to be, though it does offer users the chance to compare their genomes with those of the general population.
But you can bet that once these companies amass tons of genetic data, they’re going to want to do something with it. After they sell it to insurance companies — which will use the information to charge higher rates to people with “bad” genes — they’ll sell it back to users in the form of social networks.
Or the users themselves will post their data for all to see, the same way they already cluelessly post pictures of themselves passed out naked on MySpace. And out of that data will arise the first dating service based on genome compatibility. And what is genome compatibility but eugenics?
And I do think it’s worse than self-help, which is sometimes good for you. It’s worse than Godiva chocolate, which is at least tasty. Home genome kits, at this point in time, are likely to confuse people at best and confirm their prejudices at worst.
I’m not saying people shouldn’t buy these kits or that they won’t be useful one day, when we understand our genomes better. I’m just saying we shouldn’t use them to understand our places in society. Certainly we shouldn’t use them to find genetically compatible friends. But I’m pretty sure we will.
Annalee Newitz is a contributing editor at Wired magazine. Her forthcoming book, “Pretend We’re Dead” (Duke University Press), is about monster movies and capitalism.
Editor’s Corner – Junk Science
“Both sides ought to be properly taught,” President George W. Bush told reporters in Texas Aug. 1, “so people can understand what the debate is about. Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought…. You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.”
Bush, of course, was talking about the debate over whether “intelligent design,” which is reclothed creationism, should be taught alongside the theory of evolution in biology classes. And his declaration is consistent with his past statements on this matter, which have riled his critics then and now. Those who rail, however, that Bush’s views represent a fundamentalist, right-wing takeover of reason should remember that William Jennings Bryan, the most articulate and forceful opponent of evolution in American history, was a lefty.
A really big lefty.
The man who came to embody a reactionary opposition to modern science did so out of a deep concern for the fate of all of society’s oppressed: the poor, the trade unionists and women. He ran four times for president as a populist Democrat, once on the same ticket that offered his Scopes trial nemesis, attorney Clarence Darrow, as a congressman.
Bryan’s objections to evolution will be spookily or wearily familiar to anyone who has been following the current revival of the debate. The literature of the intelligent design movement makes a totem of the eye, using its complexity on the cellular level — of which Darwin had no idea — as proof of Darwin’s blind spot. Bryan was drawn to the eye as well. The chances that an eye evolved out of “light-sensitive freckle” are so astounding, he orated, “Is it not easier to believe in a God who can make an eye?”
Bryan opposed teaching evolution not only because he believed it would undermine belief in God and the Bible, but the Great Commoner also feared that a Darwinian view of humanity “would weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and power of wealth.”
The end result would be social Darwinism by those who “worship brute ancestors” and the unrestrained use of eugenics.
What Bush and Bryan have in common, if not their political affiliations, is a faith-based understanding that science devoid of moral compass is a dangerous enterprise. And the 20th century provides plentiful examples that this is true. As wrong as Bryan was about the science of Darwin, he was prescient as to the implications. Francis Galton repackaged the science of his cousin — Charles Darwin — into junk science. In the late 19th century, he invented eugenics, and the idea held England in thrall until the 1930s. One fan across the Channel was Adolf Hitler, who wrote adulatory letters to leading eugenicists, and would use their crackpot theories to give his human experiments the patina of medical research.
The president’s partiality to intelligent design keeps with a fundamentalist religious tradition that from the beginning has viewed evolution as contradictory to the word of God as revealed in the Bible. If humans evolved from lower life forms as a result of a mechanistic biological process, where is our sense of purpose, our meaning? If we are no different than animals, what prevents us from treating others like animals?
No such contradiction need exist. Bryan famously said that where the Bible and the microscope disagree, throw out the microscope. But 700 years earlier, the Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides said that if religious teachings contradicted direct observations about the natural world, either we failed to understand the teachings or the observations. In other words, the deeper we contemplate science, the more profoundly we must understand faith. The study and acquisition of scientific knowledge, he wrote, “are preeminently important religious activities.”
Through scientific understanding, Maimonides wrote — and centuries of Jewish doctors lived to prove — we can better take care of our bodies, that we may more fully serve God.
A great wealth of Jewish tradition adheres to this view. We need science to explain how the world works. We need scripture, study and prayer to understand why it works, and to what ends. All of which suggests that, even for a religious person, intelligent design belongs in a comparative religion class — or perhaps in a design class.
Abba Hillel Silver, the great American rabbi, said it best — to Bryan no less. Silver stepped into the fray just as Bryan penned his 1925 attack on evolution, which he titled, “Is the Bible True?” Silver answered Bryan — and Bush — in a sermon at The Temple in Cleveland.
“Science or religion?” Silver said. “Which will survive? Why, both — if man is to survive. Without religion, science is a dreadful destroyer, a machine that will crush the very man who invented it; for the mind let loose in the world, unrestrained by ethical and moral consideration, uninspired by purpose, is so much dynamite in the hands of a child. Religion without science is a helpless thing, subject to all the angers of superstition, subject to constant degeneration, because with the mind atrophied and the intellect left untrained, a man remains permanently incomplete. Science and religion are friends. God created His world by wisdom, and the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.”
Olympics Ban Wanted
Jewish groups called on the International Olympic Committee to impose penalties after an Iranian athlete refused to compete against an Israeli. The Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called for action after Iranian judokan Arash Miresmaeili refused to fight Israel’s Ehud Vaks on Aug. 13.
Miresmaeili said he took his stance to protest Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, drawing praise from Iranian President Mohammed Khatami. The ADL said the entire Iranian Olympic team should be banned, while the Wiesenthal Center said that “all those who supported and took part in the decision” should be penalized. Iran refuses to recognize the Jewish state.
Arafat: Mistakes Were Made
Yasser Arafat admitted members of the Palestinian leadership had “misused” their positions. In a rare admission, the Palestinian Authority president told Palestinian lawmakers Wednesday that “nobody is immune from mistakes, starting from me on down.”
But Arafat did not say what specific action would be taken. It’s widely acknowledged that many Palestinian officials, including Arafat, profited from their positions atop the Palestinian Authority.
U.S. Forces in Israel?
The United States denied a report its forces were undergoing counter-insurgency training in Israel. The Jerusalem Post reported Wednesday that Iraq-bound U.S. commandos were being trained at Adam Special Forces base outside Jerusalem, but did not give details. In response, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv said no U.S. forces were currently undergoing training in Israel, though it didn’t deny that there might have been such cooperation in the past. According to Israeli security sources, in designing tactics for Iraq, many U.S. officials have drawn on lessons Israel learned in its sweeps for Palestinian terrorists.
Tourism to Israel Up
Tourism to Israel was up 58 percent in the first half of 2004 compared to the same time period in 2003. Nearly 822,000 tourists visited Israel in the fist six months of the year, according to statistics released by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics and the Tourism Ministry. An estimated 1.4 million tourists are expected to visit Israel this year.
‘Messianic Jew’ Can Distribute Pamphlets On
The University of New Orleans will allow a Messianic Jew to distribute literature on campus. The school settled a lawsuit recently with a female student who had taken the school to court after being blocked from distributing several pamphlets, including one that proclaimed, “Jews should believe in Jesus.” Religious literature previously had to be screened by the school. The American Center for Law and Justice, a civil rights group that filed the suit on the student’s behalf, said the policy is now consistent with the First Amendment.
A Site of Their Own
A section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem set aside for women’s and mixed prayer services was officially inaugurated. The site, located on a section of the wall next to Robinson’s Arch, now home to an archeological garden, will be used starting Wednesday for all-women’s prayer services conducted by the Women of the Wall group. The site also will be used for mixed services held by Israel’s Conservative movement, which has been using the site unofficially for the past five years. The area has a separate entrance that will keep women away from direct contact with other worshipers, some of whom oppose some types of women’s public prayer in the Wall’s main prayer area.
Eugenics Proponent Running for Congress
A Republican candidate for Congress advocates incorporating eugenics into public policy. James Hart of Tennessee promises to use eugenics, the pseudo-science that was a precursor to the Holocaust, as the basis for policy proposals if elected. “Favored Races,” his political manifesto available on his campaign Web site, mentions Jews but doesn’t say which demographic groups would suffer under his proposals. Discussion boards on the site overflow with rejections of eugenics, which encourages selective breeding. Tennessee’s state GOP has denounced Hart’s platform and distanced itself from the candidate after failing to place its preferred Republican on the November ballot. Democrat John Tanner, an eight-term incumbent from the state’s Eighth District, is expected to prevail easily.
Nobel Prize-Winning Poet Dies
Nobel prize-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, died Aug. 14 at age 93. He was close to Jews and Jewish causes from an early age, and some of his most eloquent and disturbing works dealt with the Holocaust, Holocaust memory and the complex relations between Jews and Catholic Poles. One of his most famous poems, “Campo dei Fiori,” written in 1943, described how Poles outside the Warsaw Ghetto were oblivious to the fate of the Jews as the Nazis destroyed the ghetto. This and another Milosz poem about Polish indifference to the destruction of the ghetto sparked one of Poland’s first important public debates on the issue of Holocaust guilt and memory, which was carried out in a series of essays and articles in the late 1980s. In his Nobel acceptance speech in 1980, Milosz described how memory of the Holocaust was fading and becoming distorted, and how the complexities and nuances of history were becoming forgotten.
“We are surrounded today by fictions about the past, contrary to common sense and to an elementary perception of good and evil,” he said.
Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
A Creepy Chapter
By 1929, the state of California had forcibly sterilzed 6,255 people for being “moral imbeciles” or “feeble-minded,” in the un-p.c. jargon of the time. “California has the longest continuous record of sterilization of any state in the world,” a pamphlet bragged.
Before the Nazis created their own “racial hygiene” programs, Americans in the first decades of this century were taken with the pseudo-science of eugenics, the selective mating of human beings, according to an exhibit, “Polluting the Pure,” at the Jewish Federation’s Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. The exhibit exposes a creepy but little-known part of our local history.It reveals American pamphlets entitled “Human Thoroughbreds – Why Not”; accounts of Charles Davenport’s research laboratory, sponsored by industrialist Andrew Carnegie; photographs from “perfect family” contests at state fairs.
“The United States was the first country to legally sterilize people for eugenic reasons, and the Nazis took that from us,” says exhibit curator Dr. Michael Nutkiewicz, adding that anti-immigration sentiment fueled the movement.
California, apparently, had the most organized and lively eugenics groups. Their source was a couple of esteemed Pasadenans, E.S. Gosney and Dr. Paul Popenoe, graduates of Stanford and Washington University, respectively, and the founders of the Human Betterment Foundation.On display is their pamphlet, “Sterilization for Human Betterment,” that proudly rattles off the numbers of forced operations at facilities like the Norwalk State Hospital. Bespectacled, distinguished-looking Popenoe, a former editor of the Pasadena Star News, for his part, was acclaimed in an article entitled “Old Time City Editor Earns Fame in Effort to Improve Human Race.”
By the early 1930s, however, eugenics had fallen into disrepute in the U.S., partly because of the advancing civil rights movement, partly because of the disgust over the more virulent policies of the Nazis (evidenced in a section of the exhibit). For decades, “eugenics” was a bad word in America. Yet with the recent advances in cloning and the mapping of the human genome, the questions raised by the old movement are suddenly pertinent. “It’s important to be aware of the historical example of how we’ve used science in the service of social policy,” Nutkiewicz warns. “We’ve got to ask ourselves, ‘How far should we go to improve human life and reshape nature?”
The exhibit runs through July 10 at the Museum Annex, 6010 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 761-8170.