Jacob's Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History

September 4, 2008

Popular accounts by practitioners of archaeogenetics, and its close relative, genetic history, have a somewhat chequered history. Whether David Goldstein's little book on the genetic history of the Jews can match the extraordinary sales of Bryan Sykes' The Seven Daughters of Eve I don't know, but it certainly contrasts markedly, offering an introduction to the subject that is refreshingly accurate and precise. Goldstein describes clearly and concisely several projects on various hitherto mysterious aspects of Jewish origins, and concludes with an authoritative overview on the subject of genetic disease. More than this, however, he conveys the nature of the enterprise with remarkable lucidity, taking a sober and considered middle path between alternative approaches to genetic history.

Goldstein's characterisation of this kind of research is among the best I have seen. "Genetic history is both art and science," he says, adding: "... if a student working in my lab asks, 'What should I do with the data?' the only honest answer I can give is, 'Look for something interesting'." Yet he is far from advocating the seemingly widespread view that, in archaeogenetics, anything goes - that one can draw weighty conclusions simply by eyeballing DNA sequence variants. Goldstein's work exemplifies the view that historical hypotheses can be tested with genetic data - but within an appropriate historical framework rather than in a vacuum, as some population geneticists insist.

Four main topics are tackled: the (partial) common ancestry of Jewish communities as represented by the discovery of the "Cohen modal haplotype", a singular Near-Eastern paternally inherited motif shared by many latter-day Jewish high priests; the possible (again fractional) Jewish ancestry of the southeast African Lemba; the discovery of a lineage of possible Eastern European ancestry among the Ashkenazim; and the well-known matrilineal inheritance of post-Talmudic Jewish communities.

Along the way, a longstanding confusion about Jewish genetics is resolved: the question of whether diaspora communities are more similar to each other, or to their host populations. Jews are a genetic mosaic, like every other ethnic group we know of, with different lineages having arisen in different times and places. The particular spin on this theme in the case of the Jews is that, while many of the male lines of descent of diaspora Jews can be traced back to the Near East, most female lineages appear to have been recruited from the host communities by intermarriage.

In each case, Goldstein is measured and cautious in his conclusions, and retains the reader's engagement by describing the scientific process rather than by emphasising sensationalist conclusions.

Many questions remain unanswered, such as the origins of the Ashkenazim, and Goldstein seems unnecessarily pessimistic when he occasionally judges an issue to have been taken as far as it will go.

Although he sets some store by the use of large-scale genome analysis in the future, he does not discuss the further progress already being made by honing the male- and female-specific genetic marker systems he describes here, yet this work is continuing apace and, I would say, has much life in it yet.

Although Goldstein sticks largely to describing his own work, due credit is given to other researchers when their paths cross.

The strength of this focus is also the book's weakness; a broader context would have been very welcome. For example, the more radical scholars who question the reliability of the biblical narrative are dismissed in a single-sentence endnote, and there is barely a mention of Palestinian origins and genetics. I had a feeling that the book was being targeted primarily at a Jewish audience. Nevertheless, it should be a pleasure to read for anyone with an interest in human genetic ancestry.

Jacob's Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History

By David B. Goldstein. Yale University Press, 224pp, £18.00. ISBN 9780300125832. Published 24 July 2008

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