Saturday 11 January 2014

BritainsDNA, the BBC and Eddie Izzard

Meet the Izzards is a two-part documentary broadcast by the BBC in February 2013 in which the transvestite comedian and actor Eddie Izzard embarked on what the programme maker's described as "a remarkable journey using his own DNA as the road map". I didn't have time to write about the programme when it was first aired, but there have since been a number of concerns raised. Over the Christmas holiday I took the opportunity to watch the programmes again so that I could set the record straight.

First of all I want to provide a little background information because to understand some of the problems it's necessary to look at the wider picture. A company by the name of BritainsDNA, who also trade under the names ScotlandsDNA, IrelandsDNA and YorkshiresDNA, have claimed the credit for doing the DNA testing for Meet the Izzards. For the last couple of years Alistair Moffat, the company's Managing Director, has been actively courting the media, and a number of national newspapers have taken the bait. The stories that have been published have been so exaggerated that BritainsDNA has earned itself an unfortunate reputation for what Private Eye has described as its "ludicrous but headline-grabbing claims".1 However, it is the BBC which has given Alistair Moffat the most publicity. As the former director of Scottish Television Moffat seems to have friends in high places at the BBC. James Naughtie, the presenter of the Today programme, appears to be an old friend of Alistair Moffat's because he endorsed his bid to become Rector of St Andrew's University. Naughtie invited his friend onto the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on three occasions and gave him the chance to promote his genetic ancestry company, while failing to challenge the nonsensical claims made during the course of the interviews.2 Alistair Moffat has also appeared on BBC Radio Scotland on at least nine occasions in the last few years to promote his company. The radio presenters Fred MacAulay and Tom Norton both had their DNA tested by ScotlandsDNA, and the subject matter was deemed to be so important that the story in each case was spun out over three programmes.  Unfortunately Alistair Moffat's interpretation of their DNA results had no scientific basis and was instead nothing more than imaginative story-telling. At times the stories were so absurd as to be laughable. For example, Fred MacAulay was spun a ridiculous tale on air that his Y-chromosome DNA puts him "in south-west Ireland as part of the descent of Irish kings who were captured by Vikings and then sold in the slave market taking him up to the Hebrides". The interviewers all seemed to be happy to accept their results without question, and at no point did the BBC seek to ask for an alternative interpretation from a geneticist.3

It is no surprise to find that Eddie Izzard is also one of Alistair Moffat's old acquaintances. The pair met many years ago at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe during Alistair Moffat's five-year tenure as Director. It might of course just be a coincidence that Alistair Moffat's company was chosen to do the DNA testing for Meet the Izzards. The company itself was not directly mentioned in the programme, but celebrity friends can be very useful, and Eddie Izzard enthusiastically tweeted to his two million or more followers afterwards to promote the company:
Interestingly, Eddie Izzard has now seemingly changed his mind about BritainsDNA as he has declined to produce the promised foreword for Alistair Moffat's new book The British: A Genetic Journey.

Meet the Izzards was conveniently broadcast on the 20th and 21st February 2013 just before the start of the big family history show Who Do You Think You Are? Live, held at Olympia in London from 22nd to 24th February 2013. BritainsDNA had a stand at the show for the first time, so the scheduling was very convenient for them, though of course the timing could just have been a coincidence.

What is of more concern about the programme is the lack of editorial balance. Although Alistair Moffat did not appear in the programme the geneticist who interpreted Eddie Izzard's DNA results was Dr. James Wilson, who works at Edinburgh University but is also the co-founder of BritainsDNA and is the company's chief scientist. Jim Wilson was listed as the consultant for the programme but significantly no other geneticists were involved. It is not clear if the BBC were aware of the commercial interests, but population genetics is sometimes a controversial subject, and for the sake of balance the BBC really should have invited a range of opinions.

As a publicly funded body the BBC has a duty to remain impartial. Indeed the BBC's editorial guidelines state:
The BBC is independent of outside interests and arrangements that could undermine our editorial integrity.  Our audiences should be confident that our decisions are not influenced by outside interests, political or commercial pressures, or any personal interests.4
It is therefore astonishing that Alistair Moffat has been given such free rein to promote his genetic ancestry company on the BBC. It is also of great concern that at no point has the BBC given any scientists the opportunity to counter the many ludicrous claims that have been made. Fortunately the BBC's unwitting promotion of Alistair Moffat and his company seems to have stopped because as far as I'm aware there have been no further interviews since 25th March 2013 when Alistair Moffat appeared on the John Beattie programme to speak about his company's supposed discovery of a new "Pictish" marker. This claim was also made in a press release issued by ScotlandsDNA but no peer-reviewed scientific paper has ever been published to support the claim. It's possible that Alistair Moffat has not had any other good "stories" to offer to the BBC in the last nine months. Alternatively, perhaps the BBC have become more selective in their choice of interviewees. A more plausible explanation is that Alistair Moffat, who still serves as the Rector of St Andrew's University, has been forced to maintain a dignified silence by the Academic Senate, St Andrew's supreme authority. The Saint, the St Andrew's student newspaper, reported in April last year that Alistair Moffat had been asked to "delineate his University and personal business" after he was found guilty of attempting to stifle academic debate by issuing legal threats to his critics.

Meet the Izzards Part 1: The Mum's Line
Now lets turn to the content of the Meet the Izzards programmes. The documentary was divided into two parts. The first programme explored Eddie's Izzard's motherline by testing his mitochondrial DNA, and the second programme investigated his fatherline through his Y-chromosome DNA.  It was essentially a deep ancestry equivalent of Who Do You Think You Are? in the form of a travelogue with the story being told through a selection of the "key markers" which identify the major branches of the Y-DNA and mtDNA trees. At each stage of the journey Eddie visited his genetic cousins around the world who shared these "significant" markers with him. It can of course be argued that both the Y-DNA and mtDNA lines represent a tiny percentage of our ancestry and that this proportion decreases the further back in time you go. However, the advantage of using Y-DNA and mtDNA is the fact that in both cases the DNA is inherited virtually unchanged and we can therefore trace these lines back like a laser beam into the distant past. Genetic genealogists realise the limitations of the tests but still form an emotional attachment with their Y-line or mtDNA line, in the same way that genealogists often develop a particular interest in a specific surname or a particular ancestor in their family tree, so I think such an approach is valid.

The first programme started with Eddie providing his DNA sample "for science" and focused on the results of his mitochondrial DNA test which tells the story of his matrilineal ancestors.5 While waiting for the results to come through Eddie paid a visit to his childhood home in Bexhill-on-Sea in Sussex to see his 83-year-old dad. Eddie's mother died when he was six years old, and so the opportunity to explore his female line was of particular interest to him.

Eddie started his genetic journey in Africa, which is where mitochondrial Eve, the most recent common ancestor of all living humans on the mtDNA line, is thought to have lived. The first genetic cousins he met were the San Bushmen who live on the edge of the Kalahari desert in Namibia. These are one of the last remaining peoples to preserve the hunter gatherer lifestyle practised by our distant ancestors, and Eddie was given a taste of the hunting and gathering lifestyle. Eddie was told by Dr Jim Wilson that the point at which his line connected with his African cousins occurred around 192,000 years ago. I have been unable to verify how such a precise date was calculated but it should be noted that there are considerable uncertainties over the date of mitochondrial Eve. Indeed, two studies published last year, albeit after the programme had aired, produced wildly differing estimates. A somewhat controversial paper by Poznik et al estimated that mitochondrial Eve would have lived between 99 and 148 thousand years ago,6 while Rito et al placed the date at around 180,000 years ago.7

The story then moved on 140,000 years to a time when modern humans had colonised Africa. Eddie's next significant marker was the N branch (haplogroup) of the mtDNA tree. Haplogroup N is not found in Africa today but is prevalent in Arabia, and possibly points to the place where modern humans first left Africa 60,000 years ago. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a narrowing of the Red Sea, has been proposed as the crossing point. The programme did not make clear that these proposed journeys are highly speculative and have not been scientifically proven. Nevertheless Eddie was transported to the small country of Djibouti to see for himself the possible route that his ancestors might have taken, a spot which is the lowest place in Africa and where the sea is saltier than the Dead Sea. From here it is just 35 kilometres across the sea to the Arabian country of Yemen where "it is thought that modern humans first stepped out of Africa". Bizarrely Yemen is the country where Eddie was born, though political unrest prevented Eddie from seeing his birthplace.

Eddie's journey jumped forward 42,000 years to look at the T2 branch of Eddie's mtDNA tree which is thought to have originated around 18,000 years ago, and is today most common in the Middle East and Turkey. We were told that Eddie's ancestors probably moved north up the Fertile Crescent to Turkey and were there for the birth of agriculture about 10,500 years ago, which provided a good excuse for Eddie to travel to the Black Sea coast in Turkey to learn how agriculture and the domestication of animals transformed our lives.

The programme then took a very confusing turn. Rather than focusing on the mitochondrial line we had a digression into autosomal DNA to learn about the development of a genetic change which occurred in most Europeans which allows them to digest milk. There was also a brief discussion of how Eddie Izzard came to have blue eyes, another trait which is inherited autosomally. We were told that the most up-to-date research from a team of researchers at the University of Copenhagen had found that everyone with blue eyes can be traced back to one person who lived on the Black Sea coast 10,000 years ago. This appears to be a reference to the 2008 study by Eiberg et al which discovered a set of SNPs in "155 blue-eyed individuals from Denmark, and in 5 and 2 blue-eyed individuals from Turkey and Jordan" that were suggestive of a common founder mutation.This is is an area of ongoing research and many new insights will be provided from ancient DNA. It is therefore somewhat premature to draw conclusions at this stage on the geographical origin of a specific trait.

The next stage of the journey took Eddie to Istanbul on the pretext that his ancestors would most likely have travelled to Europe across the Bosphorous Straits, the narrow stretch of water which separates Asia and Europe. It transpired that Eddie's parents spent their honeymoon in Istanbul, and he was given the opportunity to stay in the very same room that they shared. He was then whisked off to Pompeii where he was introduced to the skeletons of some of his "genetic cousins" who died in 79 AD after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Geneticists were able to extract DNA from the teeth of the skeletons. Although not explained very clearly in the programme the reason for the diversion to Pompeii is that some of the skeletons were thought to belong to haplogroup T2b, a sister branch of Eddie Izzard's own mtDNA haplogroup.9

In the final stages of Eddie's journey the focus was on what was described as the more recent "markers" in Eddie's mtDNA. The letters T2f2a1 flashed up on the screen and although the word haplogroup was not mentioned these letters referred to Eddie Izzard's haplogroup assignment. In the BritainsDNA press release about the programme it is stated that "the DNA analysis for the films was carried out by Dr Jim Wilson, Chief Scientist at BritainsDNA" and readers are urged to visit the BritainsDNA website for further information.  However, at the time that the programme was shown BritainsDNA were only offering a very basic mtDNA test (what they now refer to as their standard mtDNA test) which looks at just 300 SNPs out of the 16569 positions in the mtDNA genome. A test covering such a small number of markers is not going to be sufficient to provide such a detailed haplogroup assignment so we must presume that the mtDNA testing was not done by BritainsDNA. It was, therefore, misleading for BritainsDNA to promote their association with the programme, thereby also giving the false impression that potential customers taking their standard mtDNA test would be able to receive such a refined haplogroup assignment.

Eddie Izzard was told that T2f21a (confusingly described as a "marker") dates back about 2000 years, or fewer than 70 generations ago.10 Dr. Jim Wilson then went on to inform Eddie that his "mother's mother's mother's people were Vikings". Eddie was promptly despatched to a Viking port in Denmark to meet a Danish brother and sister who share his marker (or more specifically his T2f21a haplogroup). A somewhat absurd conversation followed whereby Eddie and the two Danes tried to find some traits and interests in common. Mitochondrial DNA does of course constitute only a very tiny percentage of our entire genome, and contains just 37 genes out of the 20,000 or more genes on our chromosomes. As Eddie and the Dane are only very distantly related through their mitochondrial DNA any traits they share in common will be purely by chance rather than through a shared genetic inheritance. Continuing with the Viking theme Eddie was put into a replica Viking longboat to recreate the journey his supposed Viking ancestors would have made to Britain. It is very disappointing to find a geneticist appearing on the BBC telling viewers that an mtDNA haplogroup is of Viking origin. Haplogroups do tend to cluster in specific geographical locations but the mtDNA of living people is not necessarily representative of the DNA of past populations, and it is simply not possible to determine that a specific ancestor from 2000 years ago was a Viking, a Norman, a Celt or any other such tribe.11 In this particular case the inference was made from a sample of just ten people who matched Eddie Izzard's mtDNA haplogroup. Jim Wilson also conveniently overlooked the fact that there was no such group known as the Vikings 2000 years ago!

Finally Eddie's mtDNA was compared to a database of 12,000 people who have submitted to "a full exhaustive test of their motherline DNA" (I presume this is the mtDNACommunity database of full mt genome results). Only four matches were found. Back in England he was taken to visit two of his matches   two sisters living in Northamptonshire.  We were informed that they shared a maternal line ancestor within the last 500 to 1000 years. However, Eddie was told that he has a "unique motherline marker" so I presume that his sequence was not an exact match with that of the sisters. Estimates of the "time to the most recent common ancestor" will always carry with them some uncertainty, as the processes by which genetic differences between us are generated include inherently random elements. Even with an exact match it is estimated that 5% of matches will be from over 550 years ago (22 generations). With one mismatch the common ancestor could have lived well over 1000 years ago. Nevertheless, Eddie proceeded to share a cup of tea with the sisters while they discussed their shared "Viking" heritage. The sisters had considered themselves to be Anglo-Saxons and were therefore somewhat surprised to be told that they were "Vikings"!  It is a pity that they were not informed that if you go back just a few thousand years we all have so many ancestors that we will invariably have multiple ancestors who were Vikings, Anglo-Saxons or indeed any other group that takes our fancy.12

The programme concluded with Eddie Izzard standing on the beach on a very grey and windy day contemplating what he had learnt about his mother's ancestors, and looking forward to the next stage of his genetic journey where he would explore his father's line.

Meet the Izzards Part 2: The Dad's Line
The second programme began with Eddie visiting his father in Bexhill-on-Sea and reviewing his father's genealogical research. The Izzard line has been traced back to the 17th century to a William Izard who married Mary Dalloway in Darlington in 1686. Eddie's father was hoping that the DNA testing would help to take the family tree further back in time. The focus would be on the "significant markers" in Eddie's Y-chromosome which would determine the key points in Eddie's "journey" through his fatherline. Colloquially the term "marker" is usually used in genetic genealogy to describe Y-STR (short-tandem repeat) markers. These are the markers that are tested when you take a Y-DNA test as part of a surname DNA project. Although the programme did not go into a detailed explanation of the type of markers used it was clear that the focus was on what are known as SNPs (pronounced "snip"). SNP is an abbreviation for single-nucleotide polymorphism, and it is the SNPs which define the branches of the human Y-chromosome tree. The Y-SNP tree is now a very large and complicated structure, which is in a constant state of flux.13

Eddie started his journey by travelling to the equatorial rain forest in Cameroon to meet the Bakola people, a pygmy group, who live a semi-nomadic existence which has changed little since the Stone Age. Their size is believed to be an adaptation to the dense vegetation and low ultraviolet light in the forest. The Bakola were chosen to represent haplogroup A which, at the time the programme was made, was the most ancient branch on the human Y-DNA tree. We were told that Y-chromosome Adam, the most recent common ancestor of all living men, dates back around 142,000 years ago. This date is derived from a paper published by Cruciani et al in 2011.14 Unfortunately for Eddie Izzard and the programme makers, just a week after the programme aired a new paper was published by Mendez et al which radically rewrote the Y-SNP tree, and placed the time to the most recent common ancestor for the Y-tree as 338 thousand years ago.15 The oldest branch on the Y-tree is now haplogroup A00, which has so far only been found in a few samples from the Mbo people in western Cameroon.  Dr. Jim Wilson, the programme's consultant, might not have known about the imminent publication of this paper. However, if the BBC had done what they should have done and sought a range of opinions from leading population geneticists, they might well have learnt in advance of this important change in the Y-tree as the findings would no doubt have been discussed at scientific meetings. Within the genetic genealogy community we had learnt of the finding of haplogroup A00 back in November 2012 when the results were presented at the Family Tree DNA Group Administrators' Conference by Dr. Michael Hammer, one of the co-authors of the paper. Michael Hammer even discussed the finding of haplogroup A00 in his talks at Who Do You Think You Are? Live on the day after the final episode of Meet the Izzards had aired. However, regardless of the date of Y-chromosome Adam it really would have made no difference whether Eddie had visited the Bakola or the Mbo people because the present-day location of a haplogroup is unlikely to coincide with its point of origin several hundred thousand years ago. As Mendez et al remind us, the finding of haplogroup A00 "underscores how the stochastic [random] nature of the genealogical process can affect inference from a single locus and warrants caution during the interpretation of the geographic location of divergent branches of the Y chromosome phylogenetic tree for the elucidation of human origins".

The programme then moved forward to what was described as "a pivotal moment in human history"  the time when all non-Africans left Africa to populate the rest of the world possibly via the Red Sea. This event was thought to have occurred over 60,000 years ago, and provided an excuse to send Eddie Izzard off to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where he had a meeting in an exclusive hotel with archaeologist Jeff Rose who discussed with him the latest archaeological findings from Arabia. A big population explosion is thought to have occurred around 50,000 years ago at which point humans began to spread out from Arabia. Eddie was taken to meet a 64-year-old man in Dubai who has been responsible for his own mini-population explosion having fathered 93 children to date by four wives. His youngest child was just nine months old, but he has two more children on the way and plans to go on until he has 100 children, despite having recently lost a leg in a car accident.

The next stage of the journey took Eddie to Israel for a diversion into Neanderthal DNA. This clip can be seen on YouTube.

Given that the programme was supposed to investigate Eddie Izzard's male line it was somewhat confusing to digress into a discussion of Neanderthal DNA. All non-Africans do indeed share a small percentage of autosomal DNA with Neanderthals, but on both the Y-DNA and mtDNA lines humans are on completely different branches of the tree. This aspect of the programme has also caused some confusion with people who have purchased the BritainsDNA test because they were misled by the company's advertised link with the programme and were expecting to be given Neanderthal percentages. They were disappointed to find that this information was not provided. The tests from 23andMe and the Genographic Project are currently the only ones that provide Neanderthal percentages.  The technical aspects are nicely explained in a 23andMe White Paper. According to 23andMe 2.5% of my ancestry is Neanderthal and the average European has 2.7% Neanderthal ancestry. There was nothing special about Eddie Izzard's 2.8% Neanderthal to justify the sensationalist way in which the information was presented to him. Such findings are, in any case, very experimental. It is one thing to detect Neanderthal percentages at the population level, but a different matter to extrapolate these findings at an individual level.

We were then told that Dr Jim Wilson looked at the "migration map used by scientists" for matches to Eddie's "next significant marker" which produced the I branch (more usually known as haplogroup I) that supposedly first appeared about 25,000 years ago. We were informed that haplogroup I is present today in many central European communities but not in the Middle East. While the sequence of the SNPs on the Y-tree is well established there is no such thing as a "migration map used by scientists" for the simple reason that these migrations are at best informed guesses with much uncertainty associated with them.

On the somewhat tenuous assumption that haplogroup I is associated with the Gravettian culture Eddie was sent to Austria where he once again met up with Dr Jim Wilson who took him to see a replica of the Venus of Willendorf, a famous and voluptuous figurine from this period. Eddie was also introduced to another genetic cousin, a man from Sarajevo who shares the SNP for haplogroup I2 with Eddie. I2 is apparently found in up to 10% of European men, and originated in central Europe 20,000 years ago. The Sarajevan and Eddie have a common ancestor (on the male line) in the past 700 generations.

In order to understand how the male "Izzards" survived the Ice Age Eddie visited an experimental archaeologist who dressed up him up in Ice Age clothing to demonstrate how the course of human history was altered by the invention of the needle around 20,000 years ago.

His next visit was to the Cave of Niaux in the French Pyrenees to meet archaeologist Dr Jean Claude and to see the spectacular cave paintings dating back over 15,000 years. The reason for the visit was that the people who did the paintings were supposed to have shared Eddie's "early European marker" (in other words they belonged to haplogroup I2). In reality we have no way of knowing the haplogroup of the people who made these paintings. The paintings might well have been done by a number of different people belonging to a range of Y-DNA haplogroups. Those haplogroups might not even necessarily be present in the population today. And of course it's also possible that the paintings might have been done by women, who do not have a Y-chromosome and would, therefore, not share any of Eddie's Y-DNA SNPs.

The next stage of Eddie's journey took him to the small village of Neuharlingersiel in Lower Saxony near the North Sea coast in Germany. This location was chosen because it was supposedly the place where Eddie's "next significant marker" originated about 3000 to 4000 years ago. We were told that only about 0.5% of people in England carry this marker, a figure which I presume is derived from the BritainsDNA database. The programme did not reveal the name of this marker, which was apparently only discovered in 2012.  In Neuharlingersiel Eddie was introduced to another of his genetic cousins, an American by the name of Brian Felix who shared the same rare unnamed marker as Eddie. Brian's ancestors had emigrated from this village to America in the nineteenth century. We were then told that Eddie's Y-line ancestor must have been an Anglo-Saxon who came to England during the Anglo-Saxon invasions of around 400 AD. Again, this is speculation.  It is very difficult to define a precise date when a new branch of the Y-tree arose because there is no agreement on the mutation rates to be used to do the calculations. Humans have throughout their history tended to migrate and it is highly unlikely that Brian Felix's patrilineal ancestors would have been living in the same village several thousand years ago. Even if they were, this does not mean that the haplogroup originated in this village. It is simply not possible to narrow down the origin of a haplogroup to such a precise geographical location.

Eddie headed back to England for the final stage of his journey. Jim Wilson told us that Eddie's "most recent marker" is so new that it doesn't have a name, and only 0.1% of people in England have this marker. Eddie travelled to Lincolnshire to meet a genetic cousin by the name of Henry Speer. We were informed that the men shared a common ancestor about 1500 years ago, and that Eddie's marker "pointed to his ancestors coming to Britain as Saxons". The SNP is presumably a new SNP found through commercial tests done by Jim Wilson's company. However, numerous new SNPs have been discovered in the last few years and it is highly likely that this same SNP has been discovered elsewhere. BritainsDNA only have a small database and extrapolations from a few samples found in a highly biased commercial database provide little basis for concluding that someone's male-line ancestor was a Saxon.

At the end of the programme Eddie met up with his father who told him that it was up to him to start the next generation and keep his Y-chromosome going.

TV programmes on science often tend to be very dumbed down, and there is a difficult balance between trying to get the science right and producing a programme which is entertaining but also understandable to a lay audience. Eddie Izzard has an engaging personality and Meet the Izzards had some interesting moments. It did help to get across the important message that we are all related, but the basic premise of the programme was flawed because we cannot extrapolate from the DNA results of living people to determine the precise migratory paths of our ancestors from thousands of years ago, though of course it can be fun to speculate. I was concerned that the geneticist who appeared on the programme gave the false impression that Eddie Izzard had "Viking" ancestry on his maternal line and "Anglo-Saxon" ancestry on his paternal line. Many of us within the genetic genealogy community spend a lot of time trying to educate people about both the benefits and limitations of DNA testing, and we specifically tell people that a DNA test cannot tell you that you are an Anglo-Saxon or a Viking. It is very frustrating to have our efforts thwarted by someone who should have known better. I am disappointed that the BBC allowed such a programme to be made without including other geneticists to provide some balance. In particular, it is of concern that the only geneticist who appeared on the programme is the co-founder of a commercial genetic ancestry company. However, the most disturbing aspect of this whole affair is the vast amount of free publicity that the BBC have given to BritainsDNA in the last couple of years, in contravention of their editorial guidelines, of which this programme is just a small part. While there appears to be no direct link between Alistair Moffat and the people behind Meet the Izzards, we can only speculate that perhaps some strings have been pulled in the background to get the programme made.

Related blog posts
Alistair Moffat, BritainsDNA and the BBC - a "uniquely British farce"
- More pseudoscience from Alistair Moffat
The British: a genetic muddle by Alistair Moffat
BritainsDNA, The Times and Prince William: the perils of publication by press release

References and footnoes
1. Brittle Myths MoffatPrivate Eye, No. 1347, 23 August to 5 September 2013, p31.

2. The three interviews are still available on the BBC website:
- 2 March 2011: James Naughtie has his DNA tested by Alistair Moffat for Ethnoancestry, the previous incarnation of ScotlandsDNA.
- 1 June 2011: Alistair Moffat is invited onto the Today programme to reveal the results of James Naughtie's DNA test. The interpretation of the results is nothing more than imaginative storytelling with little if any scientific content. Naughtie gives Alistair Moffat the opportunity to advertise the ScotlandsDNA website.
- 9 July 2012: Alistair Moffat is interviewed by James Naughtie.  His imagination once again runs riot, and Naughtie allows him to promote the BritainsDNA website.

3. Alistair Moffat's known appearances on BBC Radio Scotland where he promoted BritainsDNA/ScotlandsDNA are as follows:
- 7 November 2011: Alistair Moffat "reveals the final results of the study into Scotlands DNA" on the Tom Morton show.
- 8 December 2011: Alistair Moffat promotes ScotlandsDNA on MacAulay and Co.
- 1 March 2012: Fred MacAulay receives the results of his ScotlandsDNA test from Alistair Moffat.

4. The BBC's Editorial Values can be found at: The BBC's Editorial Values have their roots in the BBC's Royal Charter:

5. Although not mentioned in the programme the mtDNA tree is maintained by Phylotree and can be found at

6. Poznik GD, Henn BM, Yee M-C et al. Sequencing Y chromosomes resolves discrepancy in time to common ancestor of males versus females. Science 2013 341; 6145: 562-565.
This paper has come in for a lot of criticism not the least of which is for the authors' mistaken assumption that mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam should be expected to date back to the same time. For a critique of this paper and some useful related diagrams see the three-part series of articles by Melissa Wilson Ayres: Y and mtDNA are not Adam and Eve: Part 1Y and mtDNA are not Adam and Eve: Part 2 - What it means to be the Most Recent Common Ancestor and Y and mtDNA are not Adam and Eve: Part 3 - Resolving a discrepancy.

7. Rito T, Richards M, Fernandes V et al. The first modern human dispersals across Africa. PLoS One 2013 8(11): e80031.

8. Eiberg H,  Troelsen J, Nielsen M. Blue eye color in humans may be caused by a perfectly associated founder mutation in a regulatory element located within the HERC2 gene inhibiting OCA2 expression. Human Genetics 2008 123(2):177-187.

9. For further details of the Pompeii family see the article on Ancient DNA from Pompeii on Dienekes' Anthropology blog. The scientific paper "Ancient DNA and family relationships in a Pompeian house" (Di Bernardo G et al. Annals of Human Genetics 2009; 73: 429-437) is behind a paywall but the abstract can be found here.

10. According to the calculations in Behar 2012 (A "Copernican" Reassessment of the Human Mitochondrial DNA Tree from its RootAmerican Journal of Human Genetics  90 (4): 675-684) T2f2 dates back 3506.9 years if the whole mt genome is used but 4457.4 years if only the coding region is used.

11. For a detailed explanation of the problem of assigning arbitrary tribes and historical figures to Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroups see the pamphlet from Sense About Science entitled Sense About Genetic Ancestry Testing.

12. See the ISOGG Wiki article on pedigree collapse for a selection of articles on the recent common ancestor of all humans and estimates of the number of ancestors that we have.

13. Although not mentioned on the programme the most up-to-date version of the Y-SNP tree is maintained by ISOGG (the International Society of Genetic Genealogy) and can be found at

14. Cruciani F, Trombetta B, Massaia A et al. A revised root for the human Y chromosomal phylogenetic tree: the origin of patrilineal diversity in AfricaAmerican Journal of Human Genetics 2011; 88 (6): 814–818.

15. Mendez FL, Krahn T, Schrack B et al.  An African American paternal lineage adds an extremely ancient root to the human Y chromosome phylogenetic treeAmerican Journal of Human Genetics 2013; 92: 454–459.

© 2014 Debbie Kennett


fionn said...

Bravo Debbie. Many thanks. My sense of frustration has reduced somewhat as a result of your efforts.

Unknown said...

Absolutely excellent article, well done. Shocking how much sway this company seems to have over some at the BBC.

Mark D said...

What's worse is the confusion this company is causing in SNP nomenclature by reporting Y-DNA SNPs under their proprietary names although identical SNPs had been previously discovered by others. ISOGG should refuse to acknowledge any of their results. I'm glad their presence on this side of the pond is very limited. We have enough nonsense with "Ancient Aliens" and "Searching for Bigfoot".

Debbie Kennett said...


Ethnoancestry/BritainsDNA have discovered many new SNPs and I think they should be given credit for those. Also SNPs can be discovered concurrently by different researchers, and it's not always easy to tell who has discovered a SNP first. I did actually do a long blog post a month or so ago on the SNP problem which you can read here:

I'm afraid that Bigfoot is not just limited to your side of the Atlantic. The research is being done by Professor Bryan Sykes, who runs the UK DNA testing company Oxford Ancestors. Channel 4 devoted a whole series of programmes to the "Bigfoot Files":

I've not yet seen any of the programmes. Needless to say, none of this Bigfoot research has ever appeared in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and is highly unlikely ever to do so.

Mark D said...

Debbie, you are correct in giving credit where credit is due, and your linked post on this issue is the most informative I have seen on any blog or forum. However, I agree with your conclusion: "Unless they provide ISOGG with the positions of their SNPs we will have no way of knowing where they fit on the tree and which of their SNPs correspond with those identified by other testing companies."

I can't imagine the confusion when FTDNA's Big-Y results start coming in, and how much work our great volunteer citizen-scientists will have in trying to sort it all out, especially those at ISOGG. I strongly encourage those involved in this field to demand some type of uniformity of nomenclature.

As for Dr. Sykes, I am sorely disappointed that he is now part of the Bigfoot nonsense. I had read several of his books and thought he had more sense than that. I guess he feels compelled to compete at the same level as Moffat.

Thanks for your effort on this outstanding blog.

Debbie Kennett said...

Thank you Mark for your kind comments. I understood that Dr. Wilson is supposed to be letting ISOGG know the positions of his S series SNPs. See CeCe Moore's blog post:

While Bryan Sykes writes in a very easy-to-understand way and The Seven Daughters of Eve helped to popularise the concept of DNA testing for ancestry purposes, I'm afraid I have a lot of concerns about his research. Apart from the original study of the Sykes surname none of his research has ever been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. I also wonder whether some of his results, such as the Cheddar Man testing, would be upheld if redone today. There have been a lot of advances in ancient DNA testing in the last few years and many of the early ancient DNA studies are suspect. See this essay by Professor Martin Richards:

sparkey said...

For anyone curious about Izzard's precise Y-DNA haplogroup, it's easy to find those he matched, Frerichs (not Felix) and Speer. Both seem to be in the I-M223 Project at FTDNA, listed under I-M223>L1229>Z2054 (within Nordtvedt's "Roots" group). I'm not sure about the precise S series markers they're talking about being "newly discovered," but presumably they're within this group.

Debbie Kennett said...

Thanks Sparkey. I think you must be right. The Frerichs is in fact on which would be how BritainsDNA tracked him down as they probably didn't have a match in their own database.

There are Speers on Y-search but none seem to be in England.

Here's the link to the I-M223 project in case anyone needs it:

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece. I stumbled on it purely by chance - what you discuss and the points you make are very interesting. Did you see this? Next TV program with a famous Stewart perhaps :))

Debbie Kennett said...

Many thanks. I saw the Telegraph article on the Stewarts. The story was somewhat confusing and I'm told it doesn't correspond with the known genealogies though it may be that the reporter got in a muddle. That's the problem when people publish their "research" in a newspaper rather than through the usual channels.