Friday, 9 February 2018

Boring DNA

A lot of people, perhaps especially people of European descent, and perhaps especially Americans of European descent, have a tendency to describe their majority admixture (in other words, their European DNA) as "boring". I find this phenomenon fascinating as well as a bit sad.

I can understand that people are hoping to find connections to more "exotic" regions. The reasons might include a wish to expand one's general feeling of connectedness with other humans; a wish to connect with places and groups they know and love; a wish to transcend the boundaries of "race"; as well as a general wish to come from a colourful and interesting family background.

All these hopes and wishes are legitimate. Nobody should be shamed, or ashamed, over any of them. However, I truly believe that there is no such thing as boring DNA. There are several important things to keep in mind:

1. Whether or not your ancestors lived eventful and/or dramatic lives has nothing to do with their ethnic or genetic background. A samurai from 17th-century Japan might well have come back with a 100% Japanese result at 23andMe, but does his homogenous genetic makeup mean that his life was dull? Likewise, the polar explorer Roald Amundsen would probably have tested as 100% Northwestern European and mostly Scandinavian, but I would not describe him as a boring person. Marco Polo and Leonardo da Vinci might well have tested as 100% Italian, but that certainly would not mean they sat on their behinds all their lives doing nothing, or that their thoughts were unoriginal.

2. Every ethnic group in the world has a fascinating history and culture. But you won't realize this unless you take the time to educate yourself. So your FTDNA myOrigins says you're 100% "British Isles"? Read up on the history of this region of the world. Read about Doggerland, read the legends about the Invasions of Ireland, read about the Britons and the Romans and the Picts, about the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the wars against the Norse. Read the Mabinogion. Read about 1066 and William the Conqueror, about Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Read the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. From what perspective would all this be considered dull and dreary?

3. Your ancestral background does not determine who you are. In the very unlikely (practically inconceivable) event that you find out that your ancestral history actually is extremely boring, that is still no reason to fret. It is what it is. We can't choose our ancestors. What we can choose is how we live our own lives. Even though your ancestors were the most boring people ever to have walked the Earth, that does not mean you need to be just as boring as them!

If you are of European descent and truly wish to combat racism and jingoism and promote understanding between all human beings, then remember that the idea that Europeans are particularly "boring" might in fact imply a kind of European exceptionalism, i.e. an idea of Europeans being the default against whom all other groups measure themselves. This is an example of what we anthropologists call ethnocentrism, i.e. the belief that our own group's values, habits etc. are normal and obvious and perhaps even better than those of other groups.

To truly gain an objective view of your majority ancestry, try to view it from the perspective of someone from the other side of the world. Would a Chinese person regard Irish culture as boring? Would a Khoi tribesman from South Africa have visited an Ashkenazi Jewish family in Eastern Europe in 1920 only to yawn and say "What's so special about this?"


For my own part, I admit I am very preoccupied with my immigrant ancestors and especially my non-European roots. Why? Because I love travelling and I love exploring other cultures and languages and getting to know people who are different from myself. Additionally, I've always felt rather rootless and never fully at home in my own country.

However, Norway is where I was born and where I grew up, and it is the country where the vast majority of my ancestors have lived for the last several thousand years. I can't deny that connection, and I don't want to. Most of what I am, both in terms of culture and genes, comes from my Norwegian ancestors. According to 23andMe, a whopping 75.1% of my admixture is Scandinavian.

My Norwegian ancestors - and by that I mean my ethnically Norwegian ancestors, those who didn't belong to any minority group - are the people I've heard stories about growing up, such as my great-great-great-grandmother Karen Olsdotter Preststulen (1845-1924), who came from a small mountain farm in Vågå and walked on foot across the Dovre mountains as a teenager in the 1860s, together with her younger sister, in search of a better life in a more prosperous district. Or my great-great-grandfather Gunerius Olsen Okkelbergtrøen (1864-1949), who left his family croft in the inland village of Hegra with his brother, seeking his fortune in the city of Trondheim and eventually ending up as the chief engineer of a steam ship. My grandfather remembers that Gunerius used to chew tobacco and stoke the heating-stove at home as if it were a ship's engine, blasting heat through the house.

My more distant Norwegian ancestors were people who struggled in a very harsh climate, growing crops and grazing sheep high in the mountains of Gudbrandsdalen or deep in the forests of Akershus and Hedmark or along the windswept beaches of the Lista peninsula. And in the midst of their struggles, they sang beautiful songs and told fascinating tales that still live on. The meeting between humans and the rest of nature has shaped the character of the Norwegians and their culture in a rather unique way. Norwegian folk music is in fact one of my favourite genres of music, because there is a certain expressiveness there which differs from all other kinds of music I've heard.

Norway at its best: Sunrise over the Hardanger Plateau at Finse (1222 meters above sea level), photographed by me in March 2016. Notice the tiny cabins to the right.

Although my relationship with my Norwegian heritage has at times been problematic, it is not something I wish to run away from. I'd rather try to build on it, finding new and more inclusive ways of being Norwegian. Most importantly, whatever Norwegianness really is, it is not boring 😀

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