Genes and Nations
Europe old and new: romantic ideas of national identity in the age of DNA

Marek Kohn

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Independent on Sunday 'Talk
of the Town' London section on 16 March 2003.

'Are Today's Macedonians Successors of Alexander the Great? asks the MakNews
website. 'Will Genetics Finally Resolve The Greek-Macedonian Dispute?' wonders
the Macedonian Herald. Each, in its particular way, is asking the fundamental
question of ethnic identity: 'Where do we come from?' And each anticipates that
DNA may be the key that will finally unlock ancient truths. As the basis of the
latest branch of the heritage industry, DNA is becoming a tool for building

Casual inspection was once considered sufficient to sort 'us' from 'them',
whereas DNA analysis goes beyond surface appearances to scrutinise invisible
differences. The keen attention paid by Macedonian websites to papers published
in the journal Tissue Antigens is historically apt, because Macedonia is where
scientific investigation of invisible human diversity began. During World War
1, Ludwik and Hanka Hirszfeld took blood samples from the soldiers of three
continents then assembled on the Macedonian front, as well as from locals, and
discovered variations in blood group frequencies among them.

In their lives, rather than their blood, the Hirszfelds themselves were a
parable of how fluid ethnic affiliation can be: Polish Jews, attached to the
Serbian army and the university of Zurich, converting to Catholicism, later
confined nevertheless to the Warsaw Ghetto, where Ludwik gave illegal lectures
on medical topics, including one on blood groups and race. They survived into a
world in which, because of the oppression they suffered on grounds of blood,
race was a guilty and discredited notion.

Full text: