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Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007

NATURAL SELECTIONS

GENE DETECTION

England's white Africans cast ironic new light on reality TV's racism row


Reality TV shows, genetic research papers, politics, Hollywood and Bollywood rarely get mentioned in the same article. This week, though, in a maneuver akin to an astronomical alignment that only comes around once in a generation, I will attempt to achieve just that.

News photo
Protesters angry at alleged racist taunting of Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty hold portraits of her and shout slogans against the British reality TV show "Celebrity Big Brother" in Bhopal, India, on Jan. 18, 2007. AP PHOTO

In Britain last week, the talk around the water-coolers was all about a popular reality TV show called "Celebrity Big Brother," and specifically about the alleged racist bullying by some (white, British) contestants of another contestant on the show, the Indian Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty.

"She wants to be white," sniped one of the bullies.

At the time, Gordon Brown, the British finance minister and prime ministerial heir apparent to Tony Blair, happened to be visiting India, where the international fuss kicked up by the bullying almost derailed his trip.

Questions were raised in the House of Commons, and the media united in condemnation of the alleged racism. Meanwhile, with perfect timing, a paper was quietly published in the European Journal of Human Genetics that cast the whole affair in a deliciously ironic light.

It turns out from that paper that certain white men from Yorkshire, in the north of England, carry a chromosome variant previously only found in black West Africans.

"This shows that what it means to be British is complicated and always has been," said Mark Jobling, a genetics professor from the University of Leicester in central England, who carried out the research.

It means that the British, already well known to be a mongrel race, were truly multiracial far earlier than was popularly thought.

Jobling and his team were conducting a survey of chromosome diversity in 421 "indigenous" British men -- that is, white British men with no known foreign relatives. To their surprise, they found that one man carried a rare African Y chromosome, called hgA1. This type of chromosome is found in Mali, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal, and occasionally in African-Americans. For it to pop up in Britain can only mean one thing: The man had an African ancestor, at least 250 years ago, and possibly in Roman times almost 2,000 years ago. The man, who is referred to in the paper as Mr. X, knows of no African relatives.

Mr. X happened to have an unusual surname (people from Yorkshire often do), and so after making the hgA1 chromosome discovery, Jobling contacted 18 other, unrelated, men with the same surname. He checked their chromosomes too, and six of them also had the hgA1 variant chromosome.

So how did the African chromosome get there? Multiracial Britain is typically said to date from 1948, when the ship Empire Windrush arrived in Britain from Jamaica. It carried nearly 500 passengers who wanted to live in Britain. Today, about 1 million British people define themselves as black. But Mr. X and the other men who share the hgA1 chromosome are white and don't know of any black ancestors. They must have got it from an earlier ancestor.

There are several possibilities, says Jobling. The Romans had black soldiers in the ranks when they invaded England in the century following their first landing in 55 B.C. Then, in the ninth century, the Vikings invaded after the Romans had left, and they too had black soldiers. But most likely, the researchers say, is that the variant chromosome derives from slaves brought from Africa in the 1500s.

Genetics has been used in the past to show how black people may be related to white ancestors, the most famous case being descendents of Sally Hemmings, a black slave in the service of the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Gene tests strongly suggest that Hemmings' descendents are also related to Jefferson. (Incidentally, whatever Jefferson got up to at night with Hemmings, in public he preached something rather different: "The amalgamation of whites with blacks," he wrote, "produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character, can innocently consent.")

But what Jobling's study shows is the opposite -- that these seven white men have African ancestry. It is the first evidence that there has been a long-term African presence in Britain.

"Human migration history is clearly very complex," Jobling said, "particularly for an island nation such as ours, and this study further debunks the idea that there are simple and distinct populations or races."

In 1601, Queen Elizabeth I issued an edict that black people should be expelled from Britain because, she stated, there were too many of them around. But everybody ignored the edict, said Jobling.

Despite what the monarch thought, and what Jefferson wrote 200 years later, it seems from this new finding that relationships between blacks and whites have in fact been socially acceptable for far longer than is commonly assumed.

Jobling is perfectly correct that populations are hard to define. They are frayed at the edges. "Race" is an artificial category without scientific validity. Unfortunately, as the row over "Celebrity Big Brother" has made only too clear, it is one that people continue to cling to. People like to make groups of "us" and "them"; it's part of our evolutionary heritage. The lovely thing about Jobling's work is that it shows how absurd such categories are.

So how does Hollywood come into this? Only because Jobling's work reminds me of a line from the Quentin Tarantino- scripted movie "True Romance."

There is a scene in that film in which Dennis Hopper taunts Christopher Walker, who's playing a Sicilian gangster boss. Sicilians, Hopper's character claims, have a genetic ancestry traceable to a historically recent African past. Though in the movie the character puts it slightly more graphically, indeed offensively: "I find it absolutely amazing," says Hopper's character, "to think that to this day, hundreds of years later, Sicilians still carry that nigger gene."

I find it fantastic, and powerfully fraternal, that genetics has shown that some men in Yorkshire have an African variant chromosome.

The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha, priced at 1,500 yen. The title is "Hito wa ima mo shinka shiteru (The Evolving Human: How new biology explains your journey through life)." Comments on Nature page stories are welcome at natsci@japantimes.co.jp


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