The octogenarian bête noir of biological determinism reviews three new books about why we should be proud of our ancestry--or just be quiet about it. "There is a certain irony," he writes, "in claiming an undemonstrated biological superiority for a group, six million of whom were slaughtered for their claimed natural degeneracy." If your dynosaur feathers are not ruffled yet, read on.
"Is There a Jewish Gene?"by Richard Lewontin
December 6, 2012,
The New York Review of Books
Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People
by Harry Ostrer
Oxford University Press, 264 pp. $24.95
The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology
by Nadia Abu El-Haj
University of Chicago Press, 311 pp., $35.00
Zionism and the Biology of the Jews (Zionut Vehabiologia Shel Hayehudim
by Raphael Falk
Resling, 2006 (not yet published in English)
Courtesy Istituto Veneto.
The question of ancestry has been of human concern in virtually all cultures and over all times of which we have any knowledge. Whether it be a story about the origin of a particular tribe or nation and its subsequent mixture with other groups, or curiosity about a family history, there is always the implication that we understand ourselves better if we know our ancestors and that we, within ourselves, reflect properties that have come to us by an unbroken line from past generations. As treasurer of the Marlboro Historical Society in Vermont, I am the recipient of requests for printed copies of the Reverend Ephraim Newton’s mid-eighteenth-century history of our town, 70 percent of whose pages consist of “Genealogical and Biographical Notes” and a “Catalog of Literary Men.” Over and over our correspondents write of the “pride” they have in descending from these early settlers.
Surely pride or shame are appropriate sentiments for actions for which we ourselves are in some way responsible. Why, then, do we feel pride (or shame) for the actions of others over whom we can have had no influence? Do we, in this way, achieve a false modesty or relieve ourselves of the burdens of our own behavior? As a descendant of late-nineteenth-century Eastern European immigrants I cannot depend on Reverend Newton’s pages to explain my frequent contributions to The New York Review, but neither have the extensive “begats” in Genesis 10 or Matthew 1 been more enlightening. Read More...