Gates and Crowley Share DNA? Don't Be So Surprised.

Slate's Culture Blog
July 29 2009 5:51 PM

Gates and Crowley Share DNA? Don't Be So Surprised.

/blogs/browbeat/2009/07/29/gates_and_crowley_share_dna_don_t_be_so_surprised/jcr:content/body/slate_image

As this morning's " Google Trends " post noted, the DNA connection has since then become a public fixation. Why do we care? In Slate three years ago, Steve Olson explained that most people alive today, regardless of their races, have ancestors scattered throughout the world. Genetic tests can only measure lineage in a direct male line—father to father to father, all the way back. When you account for connections through women, though, "virtually everyone with any European ancestry" would be able count Niall of the Nine Hostages as an ancestor. In fact, Olson's research suggested that if any two people traced their lineage back to about 1,000 B.C., their ancestors would be identical.

Advertisement

Gates and Crowley's common DNA is not particularly unusual. What's stranger is today's obsession with these way-back family ties. Again: Why do we care? Are the thorny social and judicial questions framing Gates-gate softened by the fact the two men share genetics?

Behind today's interest in the "surprising" DNA connection, it seems to me, is a deeply unsettling public assumption about race as a biological measure of otherness. We know it isn't so: It's still unclear whether race can even be reliably determined from a given DNA sample. Yet a looming belief in biological difference (or, at least, surprise that black and white men should share genes) seems to linger. Had it been two pale-faced people found to have common origins—say, Vladimir Putin and Mikheil Saakashvili—would that news have likewise climbed the Google charts? It's hard to think so. A cultural idea of race as difference has caused enough problems. Seeing that idea show up in biological assumptions, too, is frightening.

Photograph of Henry Louis Gates Jr. by PETER KRAMER/Getty Images

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.