Estonia: Identity and Independence

By Jean-Jacques Subrenat; David Cousins et al. | Go to book overview

Richard Villems


Marginalia on the Topic of Identity

1. The Significance and Insignificance of Genetic Identity

Thucydides, citing Pericles' speech in praise of the soldiers who fell at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, presented an exceptionally revealing description of national identity, through the essence of Athenian social institutions. Now, nearly two and a half millennia later, it is difficult to be more eloquent and clear. My topic, however, is altogether a different matter genes. I would like to begin with an observation from my long career as a university lecturer. In introducing students to contemporary human genetic variation, I always observe with great interest their reaction to the assertion that the DNA of two Estonian students, randomly selected from that very auditorium, would presumably exhibit differences six times greater than the differences between the DNA of ten thousand randomly selected Bantu and ten thousand randomly selected Estonians. As a rule, over half of the students are unwilling to accept this assertion. I then explain the quantitative evidence resulting from the research performed by Richard Lewontin et al a couple of decades ago and the real meaning and explanation of the assertion: humankind is relatively young and thus a very homogeneous species, much more homogeneous than gorillas or chimpanzees. At this point there remains in the lecture hall only a relatively significant minority for whom there remains a contradiction with this assertion: If genetics (or rather geneticists) do not wish to distinguish Estonians from the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego or pygmies, and consider that difference to be significant, so much the worse for genetics (geneticists). There is also a small contingent that does not heed Lewontin's arguments staunch Christians and the followers of the great ideals of the Enlightenment, for whom the unity of humankind is axiomatic, not to mention Buddhists, in whose opinion the unity of humankind is expressed in the fact that only those (re)born as human beings can break the chain of birth and rebirth: for them, all else is secondary in this context.

It may appear incongruous to begin a chapter in a book devoted to the reception of Estonian identity with a request to forget for a moment national identity while reading the following, and instead concentrate on the prehistory of humankind; or at least make a clear distinction between (the sentiment of) national identity and a people's genetic identity. I would, however, encourage the reader to do so; it would in any case be advisable. Is it, however, also

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