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Monday, August 18, 2008


The Times reports on a study that mapped European genetic variation. It yielded sort of a misshapen Venn Diagram, which can be seen below.

Most obvious conclusion: The Finns are weird, off sulking in a genetic corner by themselves. Since that's half my own heritage, the nugget about the Finnish stemming from a small founding population is particularly interesting to hear. It does seem, however, that the graphic is potentially a bit misleading. I'm not sure what the units are ("Eigenvectors?" Yeah, I think my cell phone has a thingy that coverts those to miles per hour), but I know from what little biology I've taken that the percentage of DNA shared between even the most distinct human populations on earth is more than 90%. So portraying Finns as sitting off by themselves may exaggerate the difference for the casual reader.

Anyway, this talk of Finns as outliers reminds me of the exhibition I saw at PS1 this weekend -- Arctic Hysteria, a show of current Finnish art. Some very cool stuff. I think my favorites were:

> A long series of photographs of daily life, with handwritten notes on them about the day's weather and other things happening in the world around the photographer.

> A dark room filled with the figures of antique diving suits, with loud shots of escaping compressed air cylcing on and off. Surprisingly disconcerting. (The PS1 description links it to the sinking of the Kursk.)

> A video piece called Screaming Men, in which men in suits step off an icebreaker ship to perform in a screaming chorus on the ice.

> Clothes made entirely out of leaves and other plant matter, very cool-looking.


Brian said...

Teague, the Eigenvector "units" indicate that the data was in a higher number of dimensions and it was projected into two dimension for visualization and analysis. The technique is called Principal Component Analysis.

lj said...

I think this kind of stuff is really interesting. I'm influenced by my parents, naturally, who have long been into genealogy. My mom has recently been fascinated by attempts to use genetics to map out human migrations in the distant past. You're right that most DNA is the same from person to person--I think humans and chimps share 96-98% of their DNA--but a little goes a long way in tracking populations.

The first thing that struck me about this picture was that while the Finns are off on their own, the Hungarians are right in there with the rest of Europe. I know that the Finnish and Hungarian languages aren't related to other European languages, but are related to each other and to some languages in Siberia. As I understand it, the theory is that from a population in Siberia some struck out west, with one group ending up in Finland and one in Hungary. So you'd think that if the Finns are genetically distinct, then the Hungarians would be, too. Or at least would have started out that way: I suppose the difference is that the Hungarians have been surrounded by, and presumably mixing with, Slavs and Germans for centuries, whereas Finland is more geographically isolated.

The other thing I notice is what's missing: Russia and the Baltic states. They fill in the geographic gap between Finland and Eastern/Central Europe, so I wonder how they fit in genetically. I would guess they'd be related to Poles, Czechs, and Yugoslavs, which would put them in the larger Europe chunk. But the Estonian language is related to Finnish, so there might be some genetic link there.

teague said...

Thanks, Brian! I'm impressed that you have the expertise to help us out with that...

Good point about the Baltic states (and Russia) being missing, LJ. I've also heard that the Estonians are closely linked to the Finns...