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.


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.


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.


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