The Gene Wars

By Diana Muir Appelbaum, Paul S. Appelbaum

What can science teach us about the validity of nationalist claims?

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acedonian nationalists want Greece back, or at least its northern provinces. Their latest weapon is an obscure genetic study, which claims that while Macedonians belong to the older Mediterranean substratum of peoples, Greeks do not. Consequently, the study concludes, the Macedonians predate even the earliest Greek civilization.1 Among Macedonian political activists who believe that Greece “has held Macedonian territory illegally for… ninety-three years” and who dream of the re-unification of historical ethnic Macedonia, there is considerable excitement at the prospect of their view that Macedonians “are the oldest people living in the Balkans” being genetically corroborated.2 Welcome to the gene wars.
Genetically based claims to sovereignty are the newest tactics employed in old struggles over national sovereignty and borders.3 They are used to support assertions of historical primacy, the principle that the first of the nations still existing to have established collective life on a specific territory has a right to statehood there. The desire to claim historical primacy is so strong that national groups of recent origin and nations that arrived comparatively recently to the territory where they now demand sovereignty are inclined to invent histories alleging ancient roots. An example is the case of Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic.
When Ataturk set about fashioning a Turkish nation from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, he was confronted with the presence of the indigenous Greek and Armenian peoples of Anatolia, both of whom boast well-documented histories predating the Turkic speakers. The brutal ethnic cleansing and genocide by which Ataturk proceeded to eliminate these populations are well known, but less familiar is his re-writing of history in order to grant the Turks a claim to historical primacy. As Bernard Lewis explains, Ataturk’s narrative asserted that “the Turks were a white, Aryan people, originating in Central Asia… [who] migrated in waves to various parts of Asia and Africa, carrying the arts of civilization with them…. Sumerians and Hittites [an ancient Anatolian people]… were both Turkic peoples. Anatolia had thus been a Turkish land since antiquity.”4 And indeed, Ataturk’s remains lie in a grand Hittite-style mausoleum. Legal scholar Chaim Gans has also pointed out that the appeal of the historical primacy argument is such that national movements that were not, in fact, the oldest organized society on the territory where they claim sovereignty “do not try to deny the validity of the argument. What they do instead is construct a genealogy that supposedly demonstrates their kinship ties to extinct peoples who had occupied the disputed territories before their rivals.”5
For national movements that can demonstrate historical, linguistic, and archaeological evidence of primacy, such as the Basques, genetics are simply added to the list of determining factors when claiming rights to a given piece of land.6 But for national groups that lack these proofs, such as the Macedonians, justification must be sought elsewhere. Recently, they have turned to the field of genetics.
As its advocates maintain, genetics can be used to trace the descent of a population; in this, it offers an appearance of scientific certitude that is compelling to those who wish to bolster their claims to territorial sovereignty. But, as this essay will demonstrate, genetic data in truth offer virtually nothing to such groups: Much of the information being marshaled to support claims of national primacy is culled from studies that are either flawed or misinterpreted. Moreover, even when high-quality research does indicate a specific ancient people among a modern group’s ancestors, such data are not magic bullets that enable the group to confirm, scientifically, whichever assertion of ancestry it wishes to be true.7 Rather, as we will see, rights to territorial sovereignty are legitimately determined by a much more complex array of considerations. Put simply, fighting wars for territory using the rhetoric of genetics is bound to be a losing proposition.

Diana Muir Appelbaum is the author of Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England (University Press of New England, 2000), and is working on a book on nationalism. Paul S. Appelbaum is the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine, and Law and director of the program in psychiatry, law, and ethics at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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