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Prince William

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Credit: Robert Payne

In my earlier post on Prince William’s mtDNA lineage, and its possible Indian provenance, I didn’t address the issue of genetic privacy in much detail. The discussion is relevant in this case because BritainsDNA inferred his lineage by looking at distant relatives. Assuming that the biological pedigree we have for William is correct, he must share the mtDNA of his relatives who descend in an unbroken line from a common female ancestor.

A concern about the breach of privacy emerged almost immediately. Though I have serious reservations about the sensationalism which BritainsDNA has engaged in, I think it is totally legitimate of them to infer William’s ancestry in the fashion they did. First, Prince William is a public person, and in direct line to the throne of the United Kingdom. Though some of the spin may be distasteful, remember that this is a person who is where he is because of his ancestry. Second, anyone who performs genealogical research is exposing the information of family members, often without their consent. If William’s mtDNA haplogroup was known to be pathogenic than the case for withholding the information from the public seems straightforward. As it is all that was uncovered was relatively banal, that William may have a South Asian ancestress. There’s a lot of information about me that I’d rather not others know first, but that’s not how the world works. In the grand scheme of things this just isn’t a big deal, and we should focus on the more concrete problem of public understanding of science, and long term issues in regards to genetic privacy more generally.

Addendum: I am aware of concerns in regards to paternity. On the whole I generally think in most situations this is probably information that is going to come out in any case, and so it wouldn’t hurt for it to emerge earlier. Additionally, in the cases of historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson’s presumed line of descent there were widely diverging views among the white descendants as to whether they should cooperate because of the possible moral implications. I suspect most would agree it is better to know this information, even though it implied that line of putative black Jefferson descendants may have paternity misassignment in their lineage. Finally, obviously these issues are far diminished in the case of mtDNA, since maternity is guaranteed. Though one never knows if someone who was adopted was never told of his reality.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Anthropology, Genetics, Prince William 
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Credit: Robert Payne

The British media is blowing up today about Prince William’s Indian ancestry. Here’s a representative headline: Hunt is on in Gujarat for a distant cousin who shares Prince William’s Indian blood. The science here is straightforward. Apparently some British researchers found third cousins of Lady Diana Spencer. These individuals, like Diana, are descended from a woman named Eliza Kewark. This woman, William’s great, great, great, great, great grandmother was an ethnic Armenian who was resident in India. She was also the housekeeper of William’s ancestor Theodore Forbes, a Scottish merchant. At some point he sent his children by this woman to be educated in England, and there William’s ancestress married into native British lineages. Since Diana’s cousins share the same unbroken matriline as she does they by definition share an mtDNA lineage. As it happens these individuals carry haplgroup R30b, a very rare lineage found only in South Asia. But that’s not all. Diana’s cousins also are 0.3% and 0.8% South Asian on their autosomal genome. The intersection of these two facts does convince me that William’s genealogical ancestress, Eliza Kewark, did have South Asian ancestry (not totally surprising even in notionally ethnically distinct groups like Armenians or Parsis who have been long resident in India). But please note that I said genealogical ancestress.

Observe the large variance in ancestry of Diana’s two third cousins presumably derived from Eliza Kewark (though there is always the chance that these segments come from different South Asian ancestors, the typically South Asian mtDNA match across the two reduces the probability of that being the answer in this case). Beyond eight generations the chance of a genetic segment being passed from an ancestor down to a descendant is small. Diana’s cousins are seven generations down from Eliza Kewark, so it isn’t totally implausible that a segment should get passed down. But William at eight is at the boundary, and he may carry no segments (in fact, Diana may have carried no segments). Of course I did note that their mtDNA is likely to be passed down, because there is no element of chance in that. You have your mother’s mtDNA. But one can debate whether mtDNA, which is not present in the nucleus, really counts as ancestry. I believe that heritable genetic material is heritable genetic material. Assuming the lines of descent are as they are recorded I accept that we know for a fact that William likely has South Asian mtDNA. But we most certainly do not know if he has any South Asian autosomal DNA.

But in the end how much does this matter? People will make of it what they will. And yet there is an important aspect to note: this seems like another instance of the firm BritainsDNA hyping genetic findings to increase their profile. You see that the screenshot of their website shows that they’re promoting the story about William’s ancestry, and, they’re also claiming that they are offering the world’s most advanced genetic ancestry test. First, I have to observe that their price points are very high, and second, if they are going to claim the most advanced test in the world they should actually do a point-by-point comparison with other services, which they don’t seem to do.

Perhaps more importantly this outfit now has a history of getting caught up in, and frankly stoking, hype. I don’t begrudge anyone their livelihood, or financial success, but scientists do have an implicit and explicit honor code. Jim Wilson has been involved in some interesting work, which is what I knew him from. But a third time will be a trend, and Wilson shouldn’t be surprised if rather soon he becomes thought of as a ‘tabloid geneticist,’ rather than a scholar who popularizes serious science to the broader public.

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, 1812 – 1827

Addendum: For American readers I should make it clear that it isn’t totally surprising that the British upper classes and gentry have some Indian ancestry, because so many of them have had ancestors associated with the British Raj. The book White Mughals explores this period and people in extensive detail. For some specifics, recall that Robert Jenkins, later Lord Liverpool, and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for 10 years, 1817-1827, was 1/8th Indian by ancestry. The British actress Nicollette Sheridan is also 1/8th Indian. And finally, my friend Dan MacArthur clearly has South Asian ancestry, due to the same historical circumstances as the individuals above. This is perhaps the British equivalent of “Native American ancestry.”

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
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Image credit: Wikimedia

A few years ago I blogged a paper on how inbred the last Spanish Habsburgs had become, leading to all sorts of ill effects. Take a look at Charles II of Spain! He was as inbred as the product of a sibling mating. An extreme case of pedigree collapse in humans if there was one. This came to mind when an amusing feature in The Philadelphia Inquirer popped into my RSS feed, In royal/commoner marriage, a happy mix of genetic diversity. The writer gets a good number of choice quotes from one of the coauthors of the Habsburg paper, who observes that Prince Charles is moderately inbred, but his pairing with the very distantly related Diana (who came from the nobility as well) basically meant that his sons were outbred. Nevertheless, there is the suggestion that extra genetic diversity can’t hurt. I don’t think this is really a major positive worth mentioning. First, there is the possibility of outbreeding depression. Honestly I doubt this will be an issue. But secondly, I think more relevant is that gains to outbreeding hit massive diminishing marginal returns rather quickly. For example, here’s the coefficient of relationship between pairs of relatives:

0.5 = Full siblings, parent-child
0.25 = Half siblings, Uncle/aunt-niece/nephew
0.125 = First cousins
0.03125 = Second cousins
0.0078125 = Third cousins

As you can see the genetic relevance of relatedness really drops off rapidly in a conventionally outbred population. There isn’t much gain I’d say to Prince William marrying a female who has a greater genetic distance from him. Though the marriage of a common Englishwoman, Kate Middleton, into the British royal family moves it further on from its relatively recent dominant German character.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Genetics, Kate Middleton, Prince William 
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Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"