Fishing in the gene pool for Vikings: A review

We are sea-rovers, genetically. That is to say, you’re probably a Viking – but that’s not very exciting because so are most Europeans. If you’re from another part of the world and reading this, I imagine you aren’t so fussed about Viking heritage.

Vikings were fishers and merchants forced onto the open seas to escape their over-populated land in search of a livelihood. Vikings are romanticised and mythologised and made into TV shows and video games (both new and old). People pay good money to find out if they were born from Viking stock. Eddie Izzard subjected himself to a BBC programme about his genetic ancestry, discovering that he, like many others, descends partly from Vikings. So the essence of the question is not whether you are a Viking, but how much of a Viking you are.
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Genetic ancestry test claims to find ‘village where your DNA was formed’

This week for BioNews, I report on a genetic astrology ancestry test that claims to “tell you where your DNA was forged, and is accurate to home village with a time resolution of the past 1,000 years.” Researchers named the test Geographic Population Structure, or GPS, presumably to convey a sense of satnav-esque accuracy.

The method was published to a fanfare of overblown press releases and uncritical media coverage.

“What we have discovered,” spun one of the press releases, “is a way to find not where you were born – as you have that information on your passport – but where your DNA was formed up to 1,000 years ago by modeling these admixture processes.”

At the same time, the researchers founded a company called Prosapia Genetics which tells you your supposed ancestral homes in exchange for money.

But it doesn’t work so well. Some customers found their ancestral genomes stuck slap-bang in an ocean:

A GPS test dropped in the ocean (source: Prosapia Genetics)
A GPS test dropped in the ocean (source: Prosapia Genetics)

This is because the tool averages between the locations of genomes for which it has geographical data. Apparently it’s meant to work this way. Dr Eran Elhaik – one of the study’s co-authors – wrote on Prosapia’s forum: “when you have British and Chinese parents you will be predicted to Iraq, as it is in the middle of the two gene pools.”

Many in the know have dismantled the science far better than I ever could. Debbie Kennett writes a wonderfully comprehensive account. Pseudonymous blogger Dienekes Pontikos explains some of the wrongness in the tool amid hints of plagiarism. And Joe Pickrell – who peer-reviewed the study – posted a summary of his problems with the paper.

According to the Prosapia website, the scientists are developing an extended tool – GPS2 – that will apparently show two parent groups that formed your DNA, rather than just one. (If you trace back 10 generations – around 300 years, for sake of argument – you have up to 1,024 genealogical ancestors but you contain DNA from only maybe 120 of them. See Luke Jostins’ blog for an explanation.)

Anyhow, I’m writing a longer comment piece for BioNews that will be out next Monday and will go into more detail there.

In the meantime, have a read:

To Ink

It’s 8pm & she & I are dusk
again lost, fuzzed – a lush, & me near-drunk –
just us, just as the popcorn air & sunk-
en August sun against us drills & clasps
my wind-burred fingers, turns their subtle task
from rolling fags, from gestures, to ink.
Were I to write her some words, some small chunk
of what I’ll call the heart, what harm? What risk?

. . .

The words at hand now handed, now I stand
indoors, in fear, yet pleased with what I planned.
Now I can barely speak to order drinks.
As time ticks slow, I sink as sunlight sinks.
Outside, the heaters start to glow & warm
her, reading. I mistake the light for dawn.

(One of three poems published in Haque magazine.)

Whimpers and Bangs

“Do you want us to not be doing that?”
He’d jump to ask the nearest authority figure
soon as we started larking about or
having a laugh which gained us
a bollocking at school and earned more
work at work.

And he turned to asking it of himself, offering
out the mirror invariably in his pants, half-cut
on cut-price plonk, panicked, forcing
a sliver of a grin.
We stuck it out together though – through
more thicks than thins.

Now in the old boys’ home, he’s got perennial
shits and we all have to sit around
bearing the brunt of it while in his turn
the fella slumps with a globule
of saliva like quicksilver glistening
on his chin.

I tell him:
“You shouldn’t be going out like that,”
but he won’t listen.

(One of three poems published in Haque magazine.)


My flapping hands Freudian-slip, or whatever
the equivalent is and she cracks up.
(Still can’t get the hang of this lark).

The carriage clatters with her
primal laugh, her primate laugh.
Her retarded laugh.

She signs: Busy day?
I rock my hand from side to side.
I sign: You?
She weaves a reply

like tumbleweed after a bad joke,
as the commuters cough and rustle
their papers and don’t look.

She signs: I love conducting you
She signs: my symphony

and laughs again and I know
my reddening cheeks and derailed gaze
are signs, shouting at her

louder than voices.

(One of three poems published in Haque magazine.)

Agnostics & Alcoholics

Some years back, we made this. Poem by me, video by Sarina Gascon McCavana, read by Garrett Millerick.

(Watch Agnostics & Alcoholics on Vimeo.)

Agnostics & Alcoholics

In a pub the other day, I saw a sterling English lad
Who pondered not a vapid thought: did creators create man?
I said: ‘My boy, this beer you see
Was fermented in a brewery,
Fermented much like you and me
As god’s master plan.’

The lad simply turned with ease
And said to me: ‘Now listen, geez,
If this god’s all he’s cracked up to be
And if he’s linked inextricably
To ale and beer and stout techniques,
How come my pint tastes of piss?’

Alas, I could not answer this.

Relative Risk: Breast Cancer and Genetics — Review for the Progress Educational Trust

Last week, the Progress Education Trust launched a new project called ‘Breast Cancer: Chances, Choices and Genetics’, inspired by Angelina Jolie’s risk-reducing mastectomy surgery. It’s a topic I was previously keen on avoiding. I hoped to get through an entire science-writing career without using the ‘C’ word, but alas. I’ve reviewed the first of the four events for BioNews (have a read then come back here).

By dint of deadlines and word counts, I had to leave out so much I wanted to say about the evening. The rest of this post contains a hodgepodge of offcuts from my review.
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The hidden joy of giving — anonymous donations may be good for group stability

Why give to charity? Rarely a day goes by without fresh fundraising appeals flooding our inboxes, from co-workers running marathons dressed as cartoon characters to distant cousins climbing even more distant mountains. You might contribute for any number of reasons: familial duty, perhaps, or to boost your reputation as a generous person.

Evolutionary explanations of altruism suggest that generosity brings gains in social status or influence. If this were the case, when donating on the open plain of the internet, people would be expected to publicly contribute above the average. But Nichola Raihani of University College London found quite the opposite: the princely as well as the stingy were more likely to donate anonymously.
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