Courtesy of flickr user 'wolf359'
At the end of last month, a headline appeared in various newspapers boldly proclaiming that genetics had ‘proven’ that ‘the English’ are ‘largely German’. The various permutations of headline conveying this new ‘science’ were, if nothing else, tremendously revealing about the projected opinions of the audiences of those newspapers.
Guy Walters of the Mail, for example, elected to title his interpretation of these ‘facts’ with the heading:
‘As it is revealed half of Britons have German blood… Time to embrace your inner Jerry!’
The Telegraph opted for a more restrained title:
‘Half of Britons have German blood’
The Sun, however, did not hold back, with a brazenly moronic ‘quiz’ to ascertain ‘how German you are’.
This story is by no means the first of its kind. Various stories have emerged of late that have ‘proven’ that ‘Britons’ (here read ‘English’) are <insert almost any other nationality here>. The key science and ideas have been expounded by the likes of Professor Bryan Sykes (whose book Blood of the Isles I will eventually get round to reading) and Stephen Oppenheimer, who argued that Britons were descendents of Iberians. Or ‘Spaniards’ and ‘Portuguese’ as we now know them.
Whilst the aforementioned authors have at least used scientific evidence to attempt to vindicate their ideology, the majorities of these stories as reported in the press blithely simplify some extremely complex disciplines, they are prone to being nonsensical not only in their phraseology but also deliberately misleading in their intentions.
The study itself is probably the first I’ve looked into that to all intents and purposes appears to be crafted for the benefit of the tabloid media. The website of UCL, who it seems the newspapers credit for the study, hardly mentions the study. Bizarrely, it only links to the tabloid newspapers that reported the findings in a haphazard fashion.
The story also credits Der Spiegel with a more detailed study of the matter; specifically, for stating that
“… there is no use in denying it. It is now clear that the nation which most dislikes the Germans were once Krauts themselves.”
The title of said article , ‘Britain Is More Germanic than It Thinks’, would appear to assert this point still further.
However, this is entirely ideologically incoherent and anachronistic. Germany is a recent invention, for a start, not truly existing until the late 1800s. Even after this point, ravaged by wars and political ideologies, it took many forms and sped through several very different, fractured and unstable identites. Furthermore, genetics do not make nationhood. It is wilfully misleading and nonsensical to claim that Britain is more ‘Germanic’ because of a genetic ancestry that dates back into prehistory.
What perplexes me still further is the matter of ‘national blood. If the new nation of Germany does has its own ‘blood’, why does England not? If anything, surely the ‘tribal diversity’ of the English blood makes it quite unique in and of itself.
Also, I am yet to discover the scientific source of the Spiegel’s claims. A previous UCL study, titled ‘A Y Chromosome Census of the British Isles’ – possibly the one alluded to in the Spiegel article – appears to suggest that myriad sources, including Iberian, Danish, Irish and German genetic backgrounds were ‘feeders’ to Britain. This was detected by analysing ‘haplogroups’ – a key aspect of the science of DNA – in order to ascertain how results of blood tests may infer areas of particularly high or low migration of peoples across time. Thus, the nonsense of a ‘national blood’ is merely a much-reduced analysis of the science of haplogroups; variations of a genetic blueprint that spreads across Europe and further afield, uniting many diverse peoples and populations.
It could be argued that such studies -scientific or not – were in some way damaging for English nationality and nationhood. Some infer that they are further evidence of Englishness ‘dying on the operating table’, as JuliusWhacket would have suggested. I would move to disagree. Englishness is precisely nothing to do with scientific data. England and its uniqueness have never been grounded in biological ethnic origin and never has been.
Englishness is the shared culture, values and historical experience of a group of people who were, with consideration of fair amounts of inward and outward migration, in possession of a coherent national identity that developed in a linear fashion across centuries. This identity was shaped and strengthened by events happened upon them, fittingly enough, by external circumstances, individuals and nations.
Would England be England without Christianity, a religion with its origins in ancient Palestine? Of course not. Does the dominance of a religion of foreign origin preclude two millennia of distinctly English Christianity, with its own architecture, hymns, inclusion into law and governance and contribution to our language? Not in the slightest.
What would the foundations of our culture be if not for William Shakespeare’s knowledge of European stories? Does that diminish his astonishing literary achievement, his genius or his contribution to a unique and demonstrable Englishness? Not in the slightest.
What else captured the English imagination like the exploration of strange new lands and their people? What else strengthened the English – and British – sense of self than the wars against France? Did these cultural exchanges lead to a less definable Englishness? Perhaps you should read Rudyard Kipling or T.S. Eliot for answers to that question.
I digress. But the facts remain. Until someone can substantively prove, using scientific evidence accumulated from nations across the world, that people’s blood is in some way affected by the physical soil of their homeland, I should encourage people to allow poets and poets alone to make comparable claims.
Let us disassociate notions of who we are as a people – our values, laws, history and the events that shaped our nation’s history – from biological happenstance of prehistoric times. Let us also be wary of populist efforts to undermine our sense of ourselves through the flimsy conclusions of calculated, deceitful media hacks, who are liberal with facts.
We are English not because of genetics, but because of our character.