Genomics and Identity in History and in Historical Analysis: Can Genetics “Tell Us Who We Really Are”?

Friday, January 5, 2018: 2:10 PM
Columbia 7 (Washington Hilton)
Patrick Geary, Institute for Advanced Study
The enormous advances in genomic research of the past decade have captivated both amateur genealogists and professional scholars trying to understand individual and group identities both in the present and in the past. Popular genetic testing sites urge people to submit a buccal swab and “find out who you really are.” But what, if any, is the relationship between social, cultural, and political identity and genetic affiliation? Genetic studies identify populations with high correlations of identity by distance or identity by descent. Has recent genetic research shown the radical constructionist approaches to identity are wrong, and that groups based on phenotypical traits should be considered as distinct ethnic or even racial groups? Can evidence gathered from modern and ancient DNA be used to identify such groups in the past and to connect them with contemporary populations? This presentation will draw on the speaker’s previous research into the interrelated issues of medieval ethnicity and modern approaches to medieval ethnicity, as well as on his current genomic research on sixth-century populations to explore the challenges and dangers of integrating genomic data into the historical narrative of identity formation.
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