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A man of astonishing multitudes?

Daniel MacArthur points me to one of the funniest historical genetic popular write-ups I’ve seen in years. Study reveals ‘extraordinary’ DNA of people in Scotland:

Researchers believe that Scotland’s location could be a factor in the “astonishing and unique” origins of people from the country.

In a statement, Dr Wilson and Mr Moffat said: “Perhaps geography, Scotland’s place at the farthest north-western end of the European peninsula, is the reason for great diversity.

“For many thousands of years, migrants could move no further west. Scotland was the end of many journeys.”

I am aware that modern Scotland does emerge from a rather patchwork ethno-cultural background. That is, it is the fusion of Gaels (the Scots), Picts, the Norse, the Strathclyde Britons, and of course the German speaking Anglo-Saxon populations migrating up from Northumbria. But the “astonishing and unique” genetic heritage of the Scots seems as plausible as the culinary delights of haggis. From what I recall genetic diversity drops off as you go north and west in Europe because the effective population drops (less gene flow with surrounding populations because there are fewer surrounding populations). Rather than gene flow in, like the British Isles as a whole it seems that there is likely to be a whole lot of Scot in the rest of the world due to the migrations of its Diaspora.

Tuareg, related to a few Scots

Look, I understand that nations want to do deep and thorough genetic surveys of their own population. The British government isn’t going to fund the survey of the population of Madagascar, for example. But some of these rationales are just weird. I trust the Scots not to make stuff up out of whole cloth, but shadings are pretty transparent to anyone who sees the science. If you sample a larger population, yes, you will discover many rare haplogroups! That’s the nature of such sampling. Reminds me of the Indian nationalist spin put on the paper Reconstructing Indian population history. The very American researchers who were recruited to debunk the “Aryan invasion theory” are now presenting abstracts at conferences which report major admixture in South Asia within the past 5,000 years.

Here’s a conjecture: in a “steam-punk” world where genomics was present in the Victorian era, the Scots would be bragging about their high levels of homozygosity! But that’s not the world we live in, so the press releases have to fit a particular template. So, for example, historical human genetics stories have to emphasize diversity and breadth of insight, when quite often there’s no there there.

Image credit: Garrando and Daniel MacArthur

• Category: Science • Tags: Human Genetics, Scotland 
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"