Stephen Oppenheimer’s bad science
Stephen Oppenheimer is quoted in the Times Online in regard to some comments that BNP leader Nick Griffin recently made about indigenous Britons. From the article titled Nick Griffin’s Bad Science:
“Watching Nick Griffin’s performance on Question Time last night, I was struck by more than his objectionable views and evasive answers. He also seems to have a distinctly sketchy grasp of science, which he misrepresents to support his idea that Britain belongs to its ‘indigenous people’.
“He described white English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish people as ‘Britain’s aborigines’, suggesting these groups are descended from an ancestral population that arrived 17,000 years ago. Scientists, he said, would happily confirm this.
“His comments seem, so far as I can tell, to be based on the hypothesis advanced by Stephen Oppenheimer, of Oxford University, in his book The Origins of the British. This uses genetic data to suggest that about 75 per cent of British ancestry can be traced back to very ancient times, before the Anglo-Saxons, Romans and Celts — the argument is summarised nicely in this Prospect piece.”
Part of Oppenheimer’s response:
“About three quarters of the ancestors had arrived before the neolithic. Most of the rest arrived during the neolithic. There’s about 5 per cent from Anglo-Saxons, about 6 per cent from Vikings.”
The idea of Paleolithic genetic continuity has been demolished recently, as I detail in Migrationism Strikes Back. Most of the mtDNA haplogroups, thought by scientists to have been in Europe since the Paleolithic, were absent when actual Paleolithic DNA was tested. Genetic continuity must be proven directly, and inferences from modern populations are suspect.
Oppenheimer bases his inferences on age calculations based on Y-chromosome STRs on modern populations, using an extreme evolutionary mutation rate that overestimates time depth by almost an order of magnitude, and leads to even more extreme time overestimates than the evolutionary rate that I criticized recently.
I had been positively inclined towards Oppenheimer’s work, and I still consider it superior to other popularizing efforts, because of its data richness and clear effort to synthesize different strands of knowledge. In retrospect, however, it is flawed, as it is based on faulty mutation rates and faulty interpretation.
Oppenheimer’s argument is a special case of what Francois Balloux described recently, and Guido Barbujani a long time ago. To make a long story short, it doesn’t matter if a certain haplogroup found in Britons is 1,000 or 10,000 years old. Knowing this fact tells us nothing about when the patrilineage arrived in Britain: a 1,000-year old haplogroup may have developed from a British line of ancestors that were reduced to a single man 1,000 years ago, and a 10,000-year old haplogroup may have arrived in Britain only 10 years ago by a group of distantly related immigrants.
Nick Griffin is of course also wrong in inferring that Britons are descended from Paleolithic ancestors. But, he is wrong only in misquoting a date and in building a political case around a belief in Oppenheimer’s inferences on Paleolithic origins of Britons.
Oppenheimer’s political case is also flawed, however:
“He’s missed the point of the genetics in terms of his perspective that he can determine who is indigenous British. All British people are immigrants. As Bonnie Greer pointed out, the original Britons were Neanderthals. They were exterminated, then the Ice Age left a clean sheet. The modern population is essentially of north Iberian origin. So what’s British?”
Clearly the word indigenous cannot be taken literally and everyone living in Britain either arrived there, or is descended from people who arrived there, at some point or another. But, this is a gross oversimplification of the situation. Why do people speak of ‘native’ Americans or Australian ‘aborigines’? They do not, certainly, mean that these people emerged from American or Australian soil. What they do mean, however, is that these people are the oldest recorded inhabitants of their homelands, the first people that can be named.
In the case of Britain, there are indeed indigenous people that were named by ancient writers, viz, the Britons and Picts. No traditions for the immigration of these people exists, although their immigration can be inferred on linguistic grounds (Britons were Indo-European speakers). There were certainly other people before them, whose names are lost to memory, but whose genetic trace may persist in the current inhabitants. There are also non-indigenous peoples that arrived there a long time ago, ie, the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Scots, Danes, Norwegians and Normans and their arrival was noted by historians. Finally, there are people that arrived in Great Britain more recently, eg, Poles and Pakistanis.
Is there any way to distinguish between all these groups?
Clearly, one possible distinction is chronological: groups that arrived earlier are more indigenous than groups that arrived later. However, this is a relative difference, which does not allow us to make a sharp distinction between indigenous and foreign. 50 generations certainly earns you more “native” points than 2, but no obvious demarcation of indigenousness exists.
However, the main distinction is between groups that developed in situ and groups that arrived from elsewhere. The English are descended from a bunch of different sets of people, but as a people they developed in the country that came to be known as England.
In that sense the English are indigenous to England, not because their genes didn’t arrive from elsewhere (they did), but in the sense that they became a people in the land itself. Different people were grafted onto the English over time, but they became English in an ethnic sense by being grafted onto them, and not by simply co-existing with them while retaining their own identity.
Dieneke’s Anthropology Blog