Based on his latest book, Bryan Sykes, professor of human genetics at Oxford University, gave a public lecture at Wolfson College exploring the rich ancestral tapestry of the American nation.
From the moment that our DNA fingerprints could be profiled, genes have served as invaluable forensic tools to settle legal matters, exonerate the innocent, and identify the dead. But, as geneticists like Bryan Sykes have revealed in recent groundbreaking work, they can also help answer larger existential questions: Where do we hail from? How did we get here? And in what ways are we all related? In DNA USA, Sykes, a professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford, delivers the most comprehensive genetic portrait yet of our country. Genealogy is big business in America because we crave links to an illustrious past, whether to Mayflower passages, Native American chieftains, or African queens. But it also reflects our insatiable curiosity about forebears who fled, by necessity or by force, countries and continents far away. In a land of new starts and reinventions, American family trees can be frustrating for their shallow roots. However, to Bryan Sykes that’s merely a pretext to dig deeper.
In his best-selling work The Seven Daughters of Eve, Sykes showed how our mitochondrial DNA pointed to global matrilineal ancestors. In DNA USA he also utilizes the Y (or male) chromosomes and the new technique of “Chromosome Painting” to help settle arguments over lineage in our relatively young society. Though we are all born with surnames that tell one part of the story, those names fragment and mutate (and flat-out lie) with far more regularity than the DNA we inherit. Can a MacDonald in Houston rightly claim Gaelic ancestry? Is a Cohen in Milwaukee actually the descendant of Moses’s brother? Are African Americans with European surnames largely free of European chromosomes? Even more intriguingly, Sykes uses genetic analysis to ponder other long-unsolved mysteries such as when and how humans first inhabited the Americas, whether it was only by foot and across the Bering land bridge, and the unusual implications of Polynesian chromosomes “jumping” across Siberia and into the pre-Columbian Native American population. Like de Tocqueville with a DNA kit, Sykes travels across the country meeting (and swabbing) genealogists, anthropologists, celebrities, and average Americans to paint a fascinating genetic portrait of our nation. For fans of Henry Louis Gates’s series African American Lives or NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, DNA USA suggests an even richer American tapestry than we could ever imagine.