Hitchens on Gates

It’s not often you’ll see Christopher Hitchens quoted on this blog, but I must make exception for his excellent piece about Henry Louis Gates’s attempt at finding his ancestors. (Gates’ quest, and that of other prominent African-Americans is chronicled in a PBS documentary that aired this week and last.) In doing research and in getting his genome “done,” Gates found out, much to his surprise, that he was descended, on his matrilineal side, from a female Ashkenazi Jew.

Professor Gates was already in my own family history, since all of us originate in Africa. But it’s nice to find that we are related twice over. I knew about the Falasha of Ethiopia, who have kept a version of Judaism alive since before the dawn of recorded history. And since the availability of DNA testing we have also made the amazing discovery that the Lemba people of Namibia — on the other side of the continent — have a Jewish background as well. (…) The fantasy of ethnic purity is simply a fantasy, and the fantasy of racial purity is not even a delusion, because we are all of the same race. Ex Africa semper aliquid novi, as the Romans phrased it. There is always something new out of Africa.

The latest tidings tell us in a sense what we already knew, and knew before the DNA string was unraveled and decoded: We are all brothers and sisters under the skin. No, let me amend that cliche: We were all brothers and sisters under the skin long before pigmentation was evolved. The only surprise is that we are still surprised; but then we do still live in the prehistory of our species. When we eventually get over this, one of the toasts will certainly be l’chaim.

They should send free genome tests to the Palestinians and Israelis.


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