Wednesday 7 February 2024

Not Quite Human

(Advance warning: This post has nothing to do with the theme of the blog). 

I recently had my DNA tested by one of the several companies that specialise in this service. You provide them with a small sample, in this case by swabbing the inside of your cheeks, send it off for analysis and await the results. My father came from Yorkshire and his family had been there for several generations, my mother's father came from North East Scotland and his mother was from the Hebridean island of Benbecula while my maternal grandmother was Irish so I roughly knew what to expect, but here are the results.



All fairly typical for a British person or an actually British British person. The big surprise to me was the amount of Northumbrian but I suppose that is not far from Yorkshire. The other interesting (to me) element is the relatively high quantity of DNA from Lincolnshire and Aberdeenshire. My Scottish grandfather's surname was Ledingham and this name was apparently first found in Lincolnshire but is also associated with Aberdeen. I have DNA from most places in Great Britain and Ireland but none at all from Wales. This would have pleased said grandfather who harboured a prejudice against the Welsh for reasons I never found out. When his only son, my uncle, married a very nice Welsh girl he was so annoyed that he trained my brother and I, aged around 6 and 4 at the time, to recite the old nursery rhyme "Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief" at the wedding reception in Cardiff. Apparently we weren't a great success with the family of the bride.

The reason I chose this particular company, which is called Living DNA, is because they also give you an estimate of how much of your DNA came from the Neanderthals. It used to be thought that Homo sapiens did not breed with other forms of humans but we now know that Homo sapiens did, in fact, interbreed with Neanderthals during the Late Pleistocene, soon after moving out of Africa some 80,000-50,000 years ago. So, although we are the only surviving human species we do carry traces of earlier human species within us.  At least, those of us who are of European and Asian ancestry do. Neanderthal DNA is not found in sub-Saharan Africa though in that part of the world there are traces of other even earlier types of Homo.  That counters claims made at the time the genetic code was first unravelled which maintained that all human groups were exactly the same. DNA analysis has completely disproved this always obviously wrong and ideologically based theory.

I have 1.89% Neanderthal DNA which is roughly average for someone of my background. I also have 0.18% Denisovan DNA. Homo denisova is another form of archaic human whose DNA survives as part of the modern human genome though they themselves died out thousands of years ago. It survives mostly in populations from Asia and Oceania and presumably does because it is useful in some sense. Ability to adapt to high altitude is thought to be one of the benefits bestowed by Denisovan DNA and that makes sense as the populations are believed to have been centred in areas around Siberia and Tibet. The first discovery of a fossil of this type of human was actually in a cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia and, though there have been a couple of other places where it has been found since (in China and Laos), scientists are working with extremely small samples, bits of a finger or a molar, to extract their DNA. I have to say that the work in this field has been truly remarkable and led to fascinating results. It makes you wonder how much more there is to be discovered, locked up inside our bodies.

As a result of this analysis I am delighted to announce that I am only 98% human, or modern human if you want to nit pick. Of course, you probably are as well.

On a more serious note, and returning to the blog's actual theme, as interesting as this kind of study is it should not blind us to the fact that we are in a particular body but we should not be exclusively identified with that body. But then nor should we go to the other extreme and do as many do now and think it doesn't matter, we're all the same. We are not all the same and we are meant to be what we are. At the same time, our true self is the soul and when we die that is what we will return to. And yet I do believe we shall take something of what we are now with us as an additional flavour or colouring. Nothing is wasted and just because we are not the body that does not mean that the body is not in some sense part of us too. Approach this question on an intuitive level rather than a strictly intellectual one and you will find that you can reconcile apparent contradictions.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Sounds like a lot of fun; although traditionally Neanderthals are usually counted as a subtype of Homo sapiens, and therefore "human" (anything prefaced by Homo usually gets called human). But maybe that is outdated - no "science" changes faster than human evolutionary prehistory.

I am suspicious of the degree of regional subtyping on offer, since the nature of sampling required to do this validly would be a very considerable and time-consuming undertaking - and most geneticists I have come across don't seem to have the first clue how to do this. In other words the precision of the numbers is not likely to be underpinned by the representativeness of the sampling.

That aside, I am pleased to welcome you to the ranks of substantially "Northumbrian" - although my credentials as such are established by family history rather than genetics. At the grandparent level I am 3/4 Northumbrian (1/4 Irish); although this dilutes to 5/8 at the great grandparent level due to a migrant North German.

My Charlton ancestors are traced pure Northumbrian (although dipping over the Western border into Cumberland at times) as far back as the middle 1700s - and the family is one of the Northumbrian "surnames" or clans back into Anglo Saxon times. i.e. Border reivers who dominated the North Tyne valley, and are most famous for their atrocities on the one hand, and being slaughtered by rivals on the other...

But we are all blue-eyed so I wonder about the Vikings having had some impact, since I once read that blue-eyes originated in Sweden - and Northumbria was part of the Danelaw for a while.

This sort of speculation is very enjoyable, I find! - although I take a Tolkienian view of "spiritual heredity" such that I think character etc can jump many generations, and get strongly affected by particular specific ancestors in ways that are incompatible with genetics.

William Wildblood said...

As you say, Bruce, it is mostly just a bit of fun though interesting too. Apparently the database expands every day which gives greater accuracy though it is still much better for people of European ancestry due to the greater numbers interested in this sort of thing. I have to say that as regard region it is accurate. A cousin of mine, father's sister's son, has told me that we do have ancestors from Darlington and Durham so that will account for the Northumbrian addition to the mix.

Yes, Neanderthals are human but not modern human so a different sub species rather than species I suppose. I read recently that blue eyes are a relatively recent mutation, about 6-8,000 years ago, and are better at seeing in low light conditions. They are mostly supposed to go back to just one person who one assumes was a big hit with the ladies.

I also believe that you can have a lot more of what you call spiritual heredity than modern science would acknowledge. I have 4 siblings and am very different to any of them but then I would have to throw in one's personal spiritual inheritance into the mix too.

Christopher Yeniver said...

As someone with Scottish and Armenian ancestry, very foreign and yet familiar clannish personalities, I am interested in a DNA test. This online forum page has testimony from members about various DNA testing companies but I am not sure if LivingDNA was mentioned.