March 11, 2007


A Wee Identity Crisis (ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH, 3/10/07, NY Times)

[N]ow comes the intriguing evidence from geneticists, particularly from Stephen Oppenheimer and Bryan Sykes at the University of Oxford, that the people of the British Isles are more closely related than the history books had suggested. According to these scientists, the core populations of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales are of very much the same stock, with only minor add-ons at the edge from Viking and other invasions. So being Scottish is not, in genetic terms, all that different from being English.

If we are to believe Drs. Oppenheimer and Sykes, then the new answer to the old toast might be: "Many actually -- including the English!"

The scientific news is especially provocative this year, because in May the people of Scotland will elect a new Parliament. This Parliament is not the one at Westminster -- with the iconic clock tower and Big Ben -- but a Parliament in Edinburgh, which was opened in 1999 in direct response to a widely perceived desire in Scotland for more self-government. In Scotland, a great many people see themselves as Scots first, and as British second. Some think that the whole notion of Britishness is out of date and pointless. The Scottish National Party, which some polls suggest just might win the May elections (or at least be in a position to enter a coalition government), wants to re-establish Scotland as an independent state within the European Union. This is the vision of Scotland as being something like Norway, but a bit farther south, and physically joined to England.

What is happening in Scotland reflects, to a greater or lesser extent, a cultural and political argument that has been rumbling for a long time in other parts of the British Isles. Ireland, which was under English rule of one form or another from the 12th century, a much-resented indignity, eventually asserted its independence in the early 20th. The Irish had no doubt, it seemed, that they were a separate people, and used some rather fine songs to make the point.

In Wales and Scotland, which had been more integrated into the English-dominated United Kingdom, there were movements that similarly resented what they saw as the subjugation of their culture, but most of the population were happy to go along with the Union. In a way, the situation was not dissimilar to the one in Quebec, where most people appear content to remain part of the Canadian federation. Now, however, the "united" in the United Kingdom's name is rather more threatened.

Does the new genetic evidence take the wind out of the sails of the cultural nationalists in Scotland, or those in Ireland?

Nah, but it's more trouble for an already becalmed Darwinism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 11, 2007 7:27 AM
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