Jewish Ledger

Q & A: Jon Entine - noted author links genetics to understanding of Jewish history and identity

By Cindy Mindell, CJL
Published: Wednesday, March 4, 2009 1:17 PM EST

Jon Entine
BRIDGEPORT - Jon Entine is an internationally renowned author, consultant, and public policy expert focused on leadership, sustainability and science and society. A graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, Entine writes for academic and popular publications throughout the world and is a frequent commentator on business issues for FOX Business Channel and many other news outlets.

His latest book, Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People, merges genealogy, genetics, and religion to bring to life a new understanding of Western identity and the shared biblical ancestry of Jews and Christians.

Entine is the final speaker in this year's Frank Jacoby Foundation Jewish Lecture Series at the JCC of Eastern Fairfield County. He spoke with the Ledger in advance of his March 30 talk.

Q: Why did you write Abraham's Children?

A: I had established a reputation for writing about genetics and human behavior and race with my book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk about It, which created a big furor. The New York Times reviewed it very positively three days after it came out. Scientific American reviewed it; I was on a lot of TV talk shows.
It was right at the time when President Clinton was unveiling the crude new GenoMap and people were saying, "Oh, we are all one race and humans are 99.9 percent the same." I was essentially saying that that's political correctness and that in fact we are different populations coming together. Sure, we share many and most common characteristics, but there are distinct differences because of the way different populations have evolved in different parts of the world. Those differences show up in body type, brain construction, behavior, things that people don't like to talk about, but that are very well recognized by geneticists.

I was really writing about what the next generation would be. That's where the goldmine of genetic research is: finding out disease differences, the pattern by population, because diseases usually develop in one population and so they're easier to spot and therefore develop cures for. The focus of genetic research going forward is not looking at our commonalities but looking at differences. So I felt like I was part of the earliest part of that wave.

When my book came out, although it was politically incorrect, it got overwhelmingly positive reviews, generally speaking, in very serious journals, because it created dialog about human differences. But I was, to be frank, disappointed that it didn't become a bestseller, so I was looking to come in with a new book that would be interesting. My agent, Glen Hartley, who is not Jewish, said, "You need to think more topically when you come out with your next book. Think about having a Jewish theme because Jews buy books." Something like 40 to 50 percent of general non-fiction books are bought by Jews.

Then a family tragedy hit. My sister was diagnosed with lumps in her breast, and found out that she did have cancer, and it really brought back some very horrific memories in my family. When I was a teenager, my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother all died of breast or ovarian cancer within a two- or three-year period, and they all lived at my house. At the time, we thought, "What a horrible set of circumstances." People didn't understand the genetics of cancer at that point.

When my sister was diagnosed people understood that there could be genetic factors that caused the disease. She was tested and found that she carried the genetic mutation BRCA2, which originated with Ashkenazi Jews and was a likely cause of her cancer. Here we're faced with a reality that kind of shadows World War II, that my sister was a "Jew by DNA." She was what Hitler said Jews were: a genetic race, a people of markers that defined who we were. I was tested and I carried the genetic marker, and my daughter, who's the product of a mixed marriage, has a 50-50 chance of carrying a very virulent genetic marker. If you look at the whole issue of medical diseases, there are something like 30 to 40 mutations that are more common among Jews than other populations. Why? Because Jews lived as an insular, in-breeding population for thousands of years, and that created some genetic distinctiveness.

I thought it was fascinating and provided a way to understand Jewish history. I used genetics as a time machine to go back in time and see how Jews have stayed together or not stayed together as a population. Judaism is really an ancient tribal religion, unlike Christianity or Islam, which are faith-based religions. There's always a tribal dimension, an ancestral dimension, that defines Jewishness, which is why the question, "Who is a Jew?" has such resonance for every generation of Jews. We keep trying to understand, if we're intermarrying with non-Jews, if we live in countries that are not Jewish, if we practice a diluted form of ancient Judaism, what defines us as a Jew? The most empowering answers to that are our link to Israel and our ancestral connection to the ancient Middle Eastern forebears.

Q: How did the broad scope of the book evolve?

A: My first idea was just to address the Jewish diseases, but I really didn't have a story there, so I wanted to apply it to Jewish history and look at the arc of Jewish history through the prism of DNA. To some degree, DNA gives us lots of definition: It helps us understand the tradition of Aaron, for instance, and understand the migration of Jews from Israel to Europe, Spain, and ultimately to the New World - but it doesn't define a lot of things. A lot of my book is a mixture of traditional history and archeology and genetics as a way to reinterpret Jewish history.

But the focus is Jewish identity, and to understand Jewish identity, you have to look at these multiple threads, and that means history, a sense of peopleness and how Jews define that; it means our whole Diaspora identity.

I wanted the book to be a bridge between serious academic work and a popular, lively story accessible to all Jews and non-Jews. Actually, non-Jews are fascinated by their Jewish ancestry, and evangelical Christians see their Jewish ancestry as essential to understanding their Christian beliefs.

Q: What inspiration have you gained from writing Abraham's Children?

A: I really would love to turn Abraham's Children into a documentary and give Jews a sense of their historical and genetic connection that is really Biblical in scope, even larger than Biblical in scope. It's really a genetic history of the Jews and why it's so important. Even students would be able to watch it and get a thrill and an emotional connection to Israel that no amount of book-reading can give you.

I'm also proceeding on a book on personal genetics, personal genomics, how through genetics we can understand our very individual histories, not just our population-based histories, making it even one step more refined as the tools of genetics are being refined.

Q: How would you define the modern-day discussion around genetics?

A: Genetics doesn't predetermine who you are. I like to think of it as the structure of a house. It does set limits, but you can take two identical houses and they can be decorated absolutely, dramatically differently inside, with a whole different personality. And who we are is really the decoration of the house, the individual characteristics of drive and creativity and energy, serendipity in our life course.

Once you get away from the simplistic idea that genes determine who you are and recognize that genes do circumscribe possibility, then I think it softens some of the reflexive reactions against what we call "genetic determinism." People like to say, "You can be whatever you want to be," but we all know that that's silly. Just by being male or female, that restricts our opportunities. I wanted to be a professional baseball player but I don't have the physical skills, and if I had started working on my physical skills at two, three, four years old, I never would have developed the physical abilities to compete on a professional level. I just don't have the innate qualities to do that. There's nothing wrong with admitting that we all let genetics define a whole range of characteristics on who you are, but a lot people have the general parameters that you have and are more or less successful. It's all about how much creativity and energy and inspiration they put into the capabilities of what they're born with.