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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

I am not my ancestors - Alistair Moffat, 14 August 2012

Genomics Forum blogging team at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012
Blog by Christine Knight 

I must confess to feeling a wee bit grumpy in today’s Book Festival session on Looking Inside Scotland’s Genes! Alistair Moffat and the Scotland’s DNA team are doing some absolutely fascinating research to create a ‘people’s history’ of Scotland using population genetics, so perhaps the oppressive humidity and long queue played their part in my mood! But as a sociologist, I do have a bone to pick with Moffat – not about his research itself, but about the words he uses to talk about it. One word in particular: identity.

As a sociologist of science and a critic of geneticisation, my hackles (alas!) were up from the moment chair Magnus Linklater told the audience that in the next hour, ‘You are going to discover who you are’. Moffat himself told us his involvement in the Scotland’s DNA project stemmed from his interest in the link between ‘cutting edge science and people’s sense of themselves’, and the project website encourages visitors to ‘Take the first step to discovering your origins and identity’.

I must admit I think I’ve already got a reasonable idea of who I am – even, dare I say it, a better idea than Alistair Moffat might be able to give me in an hour at the Book Festival! And if I want to discover my origins, I think I can find out more of relevance to my identity by talking to my parents and grandparents, than by spitting in a bottle for the Scotland’s DNA team. It’s not that knowing who my distant ancestors were isn’t intriguing (it is), nor that tracing the history of a nation by tracing the genes of its people isn’t fascinating, too (it is, utterly). What’s wrong here is the idea that origins are identity, and also that remotely distant ancestral origins should trump recent familial origins for their influence on someone’s ‘sense of themselves’.

The issue here isn’t a big one. It’s simply sloppy use of language – talking about DNA markers that indicate distant ancestral heritage as though these are personal identity, instead of one very small influence on it. Moffat is well aware of (and amused by) the distinction between genetic heritage and social identity – his team can’t offer counselling, he warns us, if they discover that someone from Scotland is genetically English. Perhaps the stress on identity is a deliberate ploy to recruit research participants – what’s more interesting than oneself, after all? But until spitting in a bottle can tell someone where I’m from (and not just where my ancestors were from), where I live, what I do, and who and what I care about, I’d love to hear Moffat promoting his work for what it can tell people about the history of Scotland, and about their ancestors, instead of the spurious lure of self-discovery.


  1. Christine - many geneticists have very serious concerns with how Alistair Moffat portrays the science. There is a long discussion on a couple of blogs on the Genomes Unzipped blog:

    Ed Hollox

  2. Thanks very much for this pointer, Ed - It's good to know I wasn't just having a bad day! Best wishes, Christine