Our common ancestry belies mistrust of immigration

August 22, 2016

“When you start about family,” said Alex Haley, author of Roots, the novel which explored and exposed much of the history of African-American slavery, “about lineage and ancestry, you are talking about every person on earth.”

He is quite right. For every person who claims proudly that their line goes “back” so many hundreds of years, it’s worth reminding ourselves that all families, ancestors and forebears go “back” equally far. You can trace them to the humans discovered to have lived in Ethiopia 2.8 million years ago, to the Georgians from 1.8 million years ago, and to the first humans to move to Asia, Europe and Australia.

I was reminded of this recently by the conversations about immigration which seem to be dominating politics and the public mood around the world. In the haste to find a scapegoat for national problems, whether they concern housing, employment or trade, many people seem determined to blame those they label outsiders or foreigners. People who look or can be labelled as “strangers” find themselves in the firing line.

This is tied into fears over terrorism especially that which derives its inspiration from the so-called Islamic State.

It is not unusual or unhuman to worry about the unknown. And although most of us try hard to co-exist peacefully with each other as humans rather than as different tribes or races, there are some – especially now – whose fear finds expression in hate and prejudice.

No wonder then that we have seen a surge in anti-immigrant hate crime in recent times; the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) reported an average 57 per cent nationwide increase in hate crimes reported by in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum.

Yet, ironically, we are all much more closely related than we know. Recent advances in DNA testing and genetic profiling by companies such as ancestry.com and 23andMe have revealed that we do not have to look back millions of years to find a common ancestor.

A Cornell University study published in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) in 2009 found that the average amount of DNA in an African American’s genome that could be traced back to West Africa was about 77 per cent, but it ranged from as little as 1 per cent to as much as 99 per cent.

At 23andMe, researchers have looked at the genetic ancestry of about 78,000 customers likely to consider themselves as entirely of European ancestry and found that 3-4 per cent of those people have “hidden” African ancestry ranging from 0.5 to 0.75 per cent. These findings suggest that this group of customers have an African ancestor who lived about six generations, or about 200 years, ago.

Not only does our inability to accept that we are more alike than we know threaten our peace and happiness, but paradoxically it also makes us more vulnerable. Often terrorists are home-grown but believe themselves to be “other”. If we accepted our commonality instead of looking for differences, we might find ourselves safer and more secure in reality and in our imaginations. What a bonus for mankind that would be.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation