To Tell an Englishman From an Irishman, Look at Their Genes

By Eliza Strickland | September 3, 2008 8:39 am

Europe genetic mapBy examining half a million tiny differences in the genomes of Europeans, researchers can determine with surprising accuracy where on the continent each person comes from, easily distinguishing the Irish from the English, for example. Two new studies reveal that our DNA contains a sort of global positioning system, which researchers can use to pinpoint where in the world both we and our relatives came from [ScienceNOW Daily News].

The findings surprised geneticists by showing that despite centuries of immigration and intermarriage throughout Europe, genetic differences between Europeans are almost entirely related to where they were born. This, however, does not mean that the citizens of each European nation represent miniature races. “The genetic diversity in Europe is very low. There isn’t really much,” says Manfred Kayser [New Scientist], author of one of the studies.

To conduct the study, the two teams of researchers each analyzed hundreds of thousands of common gene variants called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) across the genomes of people from about two dozen countries. SNPs are places in the genome where one person’s DNA might read A, while another’s T [New Scientist]. For each test subject, the researchers inspected half a million of these SNPs. The results showed genetically similar clusters of people that closely aligned with Europe’s geographical and political boundaries.

These results, published in Current Biology and Nature [subscriptions required], might seem to imply that some difference in national character is showing up at the DNA level. But this is not the case, [author John] Novembre said. The differences emerging from his gene chips are mostly neutral variation, meaning changes to which natural selection is indifferent because they do not affect survival. Such changes are probably too inconsequential to affect any properties that people are likely to notice [The New York Times].

Image: Nature

  • pconroy

    You say:
    researchers can determine with surprising accuracy where on the continent each person comes from, easily distinguishing the Irish from the English, for example.

    This statement is incorrect. The Irish and English almost completely overlap, so no, you could not tell an Irish person from an English person with this test. Similarly you could not tell a Portuguese person from a Spanish person, or Scottish from Dutch and so on.

  • Eliza Strickland


    According to the Nature study, I got it right. That’s what’s so remarkable about this study– even though there aren’t major genetic variations between the Irish and the English, researchers were able to distinguish between these populations based on the accumulation of tiny differences.

    From the journal article: “The data reveal structure [i.e. identifiable differences] even among French-, German- and Italian-speaking groups within Switzerland, and between Ireland and the United Kingdom.”

  • pconroy

    Again, you did NOT “get it right” – these tests cannot easily distinguish the Irish from the English – the statement you referenced from the study, does NOT back up your inference.

    You are prematurely jumping to unwarranted conclusions.

  • @pconry


    So your saying that they made all this up? What about the study they conducted? Are you just going to ignore it?

    I don’t get how you can just say that you can’t tell them apart without any statements to back it up.

  • Neil

    Actually as a scot living in London who has lived in Ireland for over 10 years I can easily tell an englishman from an irishman or a scot or even a welsh person with a fair degree of accuracy. They do look quite different.


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