Does Ethnic Purity Matter?

Analysis of the genome of a young boy buried in eastern Siberia 24,000 years ago shows overlap with European but also American Indian DNA. That’s a new piece of the puzzle about the origins of native Americans, but it also supports the idea that mankind is inherently nomadic – and adaptable, and something of a mongrel species. (See, “24,000-Year-Old Body Shows Kinship to Europeans and American Indians.”)

Whatever drove European tribes to Mongolia — and on to America, and possibly back again – it wasn’t about maintaining the purity of their blood or their traditions. And it probably wasn’t about adventure, a craving for new experience. Chances are, it was about survival.

The process was grueling, no doubt, filled with fear and uncertainty. Undoubtedly, there was plunder and rape along the way, though the northern passage through Alaska, rich with animals and fish, was not well populated.

Up until recently, most anthropologists had thought that American Indians descended from European or Asian tribes that crossed over the Bering land bridge between Alaska and Siberia about 11,000 years ago before the rising seas made it impassable. Now the story looks far more complex. The emerging new consensus is that different parts of America were “discovered” by many different tribes at different times. The body of the boy who died in Siberia 24,000 years ago with American Indian DNA, is an intriguing new part of the puzzle that still remains to be put together.

It stands in dramatic contrast to another story recently carried in The New York Times about the struggle of Mayflower descendants to be certified. The society that judges the evidence is very strict as membership is highly coveted.

The Times noted there is a dark side to such “lineage societies.” A Bernard College historian observed: “Mayflower societies developed, at least in part, as a ‘reaction to immigration’ that was transforming the United States late in the 19th century. . . . Membership, he said, conferred the notion that ‘we’re authentic. We’re better. We were here before. Unlike these unwashed immigrants coming to America.’” (See, “Persistence in the Genes: Connecting the Dots to the Mayflower.”)

Some members of the Society of Mayflower Descendants objected to being characterized as snobbish, and no doubt not all of them are. But what is the value of such a lineage?

Actually, inbred families and societies are more prone to carrying genetic defects, while intermarriage and other forms of comingling seem to invigorate genetic heritages. Moreover, the stress on purity inevitably distracts from the challenge of adaptation and the striving that leads to significant accomplishments.

Throughout history, the human species has been marked by migrations and invasions, repeated relocations, epidemics, and natural disasters that have profoundly altered the character and stability of our populations. The more we are able to trace the stories inscribed in our DNA, the clearer this becomes. And that may well be one of our greatest strengths. We struggle on.

Pride may try to control the process. Fear of others and the demands of identity and social cohesion may hold us back. But the good news is that the battle has already been lost.