The Rev. William Sanchez of Albuquerque, N.M., has more than just the standard priest’s cross hanging from his neck. After a genetic test showed that some of his ancestors from Spain were Jewish, he took to wearing a Star of David, as well.
Such is the “mystique of Judaism,” writes Jon Entine, author of the new book “Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People,” that the “romance of a few genetic markers” can change a person’s entire outlook on life.
Entine, a columnist for Ethical Corporation magazine and an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is best known for the controversial 1999 book “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid To Talk About It,” a politically incorrect look at African Americans and sports. With his latest volume, he continues to raise ticklish questions about the role of genes in defining identity.
“I’ve always had an interest in genetics and the controversial issues of race,” he said in an interview with the Forward. After Entine wrote “Taboo,” he learned that his family’s history of breast cancer came from the BRCA 2 mutation. It was then that he became interested in Jewish genetics.
The book chronicles his attempt to use DNA to answer the age-old question, “Who is a Jew?” Judaism is unique among world religions, he said, because of its ancestral dimension, and since less than half of 1% of Jews had children with non-Jews until the 20th century, Jews are a “gold mine for genetics.”
This gold mine has had a heavy impact on the lives of some, who, like Sanchez, have learned later in life that they have some Jewish ancestry. In doing research for the book, Entine encountered a range of reactions from those who merely find the results mildly interesting to those who, after learning their genetic heritage, change their whole life, and end up “taking their Jewish ancestry very seriously.”
Beyond such psychological questions, the book also tackles issues of historical significance, from the possibility of using DNA to find out if biblical personages actually existed to finding out where mass conversions to and from Judaism might have occurred.
Entine also explores the medical and biological effects of endogamy — or “marrying in” — over time. Recessive genes that otherwise might have filtered out of a population have remained present in Jews, leading to such “Jewish” genetic diseases as Tay-Sachs, Gaucher disease and the type of breast cancer of which Entine himself is a carrier.
Building upon a controversial study published two years ago, Entine holds that there may be a link between the “Jewish” genetic diseases and “superior” Jewish intelligence.
Despite the contentious notion that one population might be more intelligent or, in the case of Entine’s previous book, more athletic, Entine says that “genetics prescribe reality” and that ignoring how our “potential is determined by our genes” does not change the fact that genetics, along with environment, can be very important to who someone is. “You can’t turn clay into marble,” he said.
Entine sees the whole matter of nature vs. nurture as an “artificial dichotomy.” He said that an entirely new way of thinking is needed to deal with what genetics are telling us. As with “Taboo,” Entine expects criticism from “ideological egalitarians” but believes that while the Human Genome Project has shown us how similar humans are to each other, “we need a discourse on human differences, as well.”
“Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People” is due out on October 24.