Regional genetic identities. Really?

In March 2015 the results of a major survey of genetic variation in the UK was published in Nature. This is the outcome of the People of the British Isles project which has undertaken a detailed comparison of the genomes of over 2000 people, grouped the samples on the basis of their genetic similarity and differences and then plotted these groups on a map of the UK.

The press release issued by the Welcome Trust which funded the project, began with by saying: ‘Many people in the UK feel a strong sense of regional identity, and it now appears that there may be a scientific basis to this feeling, according to a landmark new study into the genetic make up of the British Isles’.

The findings of what is proclaimed as ‘the first fine-scale genetic map of any country in the world’ show that ‘prior to the mass migrations of the 20th century there was a striking pattern of rich but subtle genetic variation across the UK, with distinct groups of genetically similar individuals clustered together geographically’.

Contemporary genetic clusters have similar locations to late 6th century ‘tribal groupings and kingdoms suggesting that they may have maintained a regional identity for many centuries’.

This all might seem on the face of it interesting but innocuous. There is nothing to suggest ideas of homogenous and genetically pure national groups, quite the opposite in fact, since the project is exploring geographical patterns of variation in order to provide a resource for biomedical research and to explore patterns of ancient settlement. So why is there any need for caution or critique?

One thing to consider is the way the project is presented in terms of ideas of identity, but effectively forms of identity that relate to those who descend from the population of the UK ‘prior to the mass migrations of the 20th century’. It is clearly stated that the map of genetic variation in the UK is of ‘a snapshot of UK genetics in the late 19th century’.

This is because in order to study evidence of ancient and early medieval patterns of settlement the research analysed only the genetic material of contemporary people who are taken to be direct descendants of those early inhabitants. The select sampling of rural and locally rooted research participants – in this case, whose ‘four grandparents all were born within 80k of each other’ – is a standard technique in studies of this kind and does not reflect nor intentionally imply any wider model of genealogically exclusive and natural belonging. This not the bad science of genetic purity, racial hierarchies and nations locked in battle to survive as the ‘fittest’.

Yet the rather downplayed issue of this being a national atlas of a past pattern of variation rather than a contemporary map needs to be kept in mind in reflecting on the way the project is presented and reported in terms of identity. Underlying all those headline nods to ‘Who do you think you are?’ and accounts of ‘national genetic heritage’ is not just the idea that studies of genetic variation today enrich a collective sense of the past, but that the collective is itself bound together and differentiated from others though a sense of shared ancestry. Again, a rather everyday, ordinary, benign or more strongly valued, valid and valorised version of collective identities. Unless of course, they are explicitly exclusive, genealogically bound and biologized ethnic, national or racialized collectives, with their intimations of blood and soil, purity and protection.

They are not in this case. Instead there is a general evocation of the project’s contribution to a collective historical knowledge in the UK and much more strong emphasis on regional identities. In much of the appreciative reporting of the project, this was taken to be proof of the diversity of regional identities which, along with evidence of historical migration prior to the 20th century, supports a liberal argument about the UK as long being a mongrel nation or nation of immigrants.

Those who picked up on the account of tribes in the project’s reporting to argue for the tribal nature of identity in the UK, echo a wider argument that strong regional identities in England can be a counterpoint to the idea of a monolithic Englishness. A geographically differentiated Englishness, for example, suggests the capacity of a collective identity to be both shared and differentiated and inclusive of difference. It reflects the regional making of identity and thus something other than a primordial and unchanging culture. But how that making is understood is crucial to the capacity for a regional identity to be something that can be inclusive and open.

If regional identities are imagined as somehow a function of genetic or genealogical inheritance, rather than shaped through cultural inheritance and contemporary practice – the doing of culture – then regional identities are then the preserve of the genealogically regionally rooted. People from different places – near and far – may come to feel a strong sense of regional affiliation in parts of the UK too, but their regional identities would be seen as somehow shallow, artificial or affected without the authentication of regional ancestry.

The problematic implications of this model of identity would be much more obvious if it was scaled up to the country as a whole. Scaled up, the equation of regionally distinctive identities with patterns of variation that reflect shared ancestry, equals genetically distinctive ethnic nations. The idea of there being a scientific basis to national identity – Englishness, or Britishness for example –would probably raise more critical hackles.

But the rather blithe invocation of longstanding regional identities and allusions to their basis in shared ancestry and reflection in genetic distinctiveness, matters deeply in terms of how people with all kinds of family histories of migration within and beyond the UK can be imagined as belonging in the localities in which they live and in the country as a whole.

So while it might be more possible to imagine Sikh Britishness for example, the idea of genealogically rooted regional identities implies that there is something more contrived or implausible about a Sikh Yorkshire identity. As attention shifts towards political agency at the local or regional level from a variety of political perspectives, there a problem of deferring authentic identity to this scale.

But regional identities are not just reified as genetic entities in the project. There is particular emphasis placed on results which suggest that a cultural, social and administrative boundary appears to coincide with a pattern of genetic difference, as in the case of Cornwall and Devon (even through this is an exception rather than typical). But in other cases ethnic categories are found not to coincide neatly with pattern of genetic variation.

This depends on the scale and resolution of differentiation, with Wales being differentiated from Scotland and thus challenging a shared Celtic identity but also internally divided north from south. Some sorts and some scales of identity are linked to a regional geography of shared ancestry and genealogical depth while others appear as if they are based on mistaken assumptions of this. People from different ‘Celtic parts of the UK’, for example, are presented as genetically dissimilar despite cultural affinities.

In a time of intensified issues of national difference and devolution in the UK, results like this can be taken up in arguments about political unity and autonomy in different ways. But this is also an issue here of taking historically subordinated identities that have been shaped by resistance to English centralised power within the British Isles as objects of genetic analysis and deconstruction in a scientific project emanating from that centre.

This contrasts with the finding that the ‘majority of eastern, central and southern England is made up of a single, relatively homogenous, genetic group with a significant contribution from Anglo-Saxon migrations’. Despite wider evidence of regional genetic variation and the broad emphasis on regional identities, this could easily furnish resources for claims about a white, Anglo-Saxon people of England in the late 19th century and arguments about the loss of purity and threats to its last survivors through immigration. Genetically proven regional identities matter to the politics of inclusion and difference at any scale but probably most obviously when scaled up to the nation itself, and open to racialization – that ‘single genetically homogenous’ southern Englishness.

Oddly, any sense of the Irishness of Northern Ireland is simply erased with the results suggesting a mixture of English and Scottish ancestry. This reflects the study’s focus on the UK rather than the British Isles (despite its name), but a project like this has to be considered in relation to the old and new politics of difference and belonging in and between these two islands.

So beneath the headlines of the scientifically proven genealogical basis of regional identities, there is a more contradictory simultaneous making and unmaking of identities as genetic going on here. This calls for a similarly double critique: one that challenges the apparently benign model of regional identities, found in patterns of genetic variation, based in shared ancestry and passed on genealogically; and challenges the more fundamental idea that genetic similarity based on shared ancestry is the basis of collective identity, whether it is affirmed or undermined by maps of genetic variation.

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