14 June 2008

DNA: Jacob's Legacy

Fascinated by Jewish genetics and Jewish history? Here's a new book that should be of interest: Jacob's Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History (Yale University Press, May 2008), by geneticist David B. Goldstein.

Goldstein is professor of molecular genetics and director of the Institute for Genome Science and Policy’s Center for Population Genomics and Pharmacogenetics, Duke University (Durham, North Carolina).

After reading two reviews, it is now on my wish list and I'll pick it up when I'm in New York next week. Both reviews make the point that Goldstein distills a decade of scientific papers for a popular audience, avoids technical jargon and makes the science easy to understand, while covering the most topical issues in genetic and Jewish history.

The new book, according to one review, complements Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People, by Jon Entine, which Tracing the Tribe has previously posted on.

Dr. Jerome Groopman, author of How Doctors Think, reviewed it at Powells Books, and it is also reviewed on Science Blog .

Groopman's review on Powells was in The New Republic Online, offers some of his own genealogy, the loss of historical memory, and why interest in genealogical research continues to grow.

As I read David B. Goldstein's important and illuminating book -- written with keen intelligence and deep love of its subject, without sacrificing scientific accuracy for the sake of tribal nostalgia -- my memory of my visit to my patient and his ancestors unexpectedly returned. I thought again about him, what kind of person he was and what he had accomplished, and how much of his character and behavior could have been a legacy of his long lineage. And perhaps I thought of him because, like most Jews I know, I have no such portrait gallery of my forebears. My paternal grandmother came from Vilna, worked in a sweatshop on Rivington Street, and married my grandfather, who had also fled the czar, first to Holland and then to New York, where he sold fruit in the streets. The known roots of the Groopmans reach only to the nineteenth century. My mother's family was from the Carpathian Mountains of Hungary, close relatives of the Hasidic rebbe of Satu Mare, or Satmar; but despite this prestigious status at least in certain Jewish circles, the family lost much of its historical memory during the Holocaust.

For many Americans, writes Groopman, traditions have been diluted, and heritage has become remote. There is a thirst among ethnic and racial groups to recapture the past, and this is the basis for the current popularity of genealogical research. The groups that seem most intent on finding links through time, he says, are those who were persecuted and driven into diaspora.

Genetic history is both more and less significant than it is depicted in popular accounts. It is less significant because the historical insights that can be achieved with genetics are always very specific and often fairly modest. Caught up as it is in the excitement of modern science, genetic history's power and importance are often overstated, whereas the real grandeur and detail of human history can only be seen in the context of our archeological and written legacies and, of course, our memories. But at times genetic history stretches the boundaries of its scientific formalism and hints at answers to bigger questions: What makes a people a people? What binds them together through time? What alienates them from some and aligns them to others?

In his discussion of Kohanim, Goldstein considers two scenarios: adoption versus genetic continuity of the priestly line. While recognizing that today's oral tradition of the Kohanim is largely correct, transmitted from father to son over thousands of years, producing a cultural and genetic continuous line from priests who survived the destruction of the second Temple, there is also evidence of the post of high priest having been sold by Antiochus.

The Jews have long carried with them the story of the priests, and at some point in their history these stories could have motivated people to assume, or adopt, priestly status, regardless of their genetic ancestry. In other words, sometime after the dispersal in the first and second centuries C.E., a group of Jews (or maybe non-Jews) could have decided to adopt the title of priest or been awarded it. In time, this group could have come to be accepted as such. We know that in the Second Temple period the award of priestly status had everything to do with political expediency and relatively little to do with genealogy.

Goldstein hopes that readers of his book will understand that genes play a critical role in who we are but always in combination with the environment, and that in human populations, genetic and environmental contributions are hard to disentangle.

Genes, as Goldstein shows, are interesting to unravel and fun to study. But they are emphatically not destiny. We make existential choices about how we live and what we pass on as culture and values to our children. Judaism has long embraced this; indeed, it pioneered in the invention of tradition and the duty of its transmission.

On Science Blog:

David Goldstein's Jacob's Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History is a straightforward but dense exposition of just such a topic. In many ways this is a work which complements Jon Entine's Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People; but while Entine exhibits the narrative flourishes and expansive curiosity of a writer, Goldstein's book is a focused extension of his particular line of research. In fact, there is little scientific content in Jacob's Legacy which couldn't be gleaned from the substantial number of papers which have addressed questions of Jewish genetics over the past 10 years.

Says the reviewer:

If I had to characterize Jacob's Legacy with a few pithy sentences, I would suggest that in many ways it is a series of discussion sections of scientific papers larded with personal insights which highlight the importance of interpersonal dynamics in the endeavour of science. The author attempts to describe a few of the technicalities of extracting and sequencing genes, but ultimately it is a superficial enough treatment that that aspect seems pro forma and might best be skimmed.

Jacob's Legacy is ultimately a Big Think book about a small but interesting topic. Time will tell if the questions and answers that have bubbled up from the exploration of Jewish genetics will serve simply as a trial run for what will come....

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