Sunday, August 2, 2015

The DNA of "The Fewest of All Peoples"

I am writing this Saturday night after we read the weekly Torah portion which includes this verse:
  לא מרבכם מכל-העמים חשק ה' בכם ויבחר בכם כי-אתם המעט מכל-העמים
Not because your numbers are greater than any people did the L-rd desire you and choose you; for you are the fewest of all peoples.
Devarim (Deuteromony) 7,7

I'm not sure about "the fewest of all peoples" numerically, but we certainly don't rank anywhere near the largest peoples. And considering the large number of tragic events to strike the Jews throughout the generations, keeping us small seems to be part of a deliberate plan.

Normally, a survival strategy for a population involves large numbers of offspring over generations. From time to time we see these breathless articles about the number of people living today who can count Genghis Khan or Charlemagne among their ancestors. (Yes, conquest too plays a role in spreading your DNA.) This is not at all similar to the statistical observation that all European Jews are descended from Rashi who died just over nine hundred years ago and who had all of three daughters.

Abraham too was blessed with the promise that his descendants would be like the stars in the sky and the sand on the shore (Bereishit - Genesis - 22,17). Other verses make it clear that these promises are analogies to very large numbers, with implications that extend to influence among "the nations."

This is a strategy that anyone can understand. You want to propagate your DNA, you do it through large numbers. Even moreso if it is spread by many nations. So like sand on the shore and stars in the sky, little bits of Abrahamic DNA reach to the far corners of the world. A fine blessing.

So what's this about being the "fewest of peoples?" This seems a less effective strategy for survival, much less propagation.

When introducing the subject of DNA to an unsuspecting audience, we often use this kind of illustration to explain how we inherit DNA from our ancestors.

The first generation, the great-grandparents, are represented by solid colors and these colors decrease on average by half with each subsequest generation. Some of those colors will disappear entirely after a few generations and others will persist longer. But the point is made that the further we get from some arbitrary source, the less of that source remains.

In fact, of course, our great-grandparents are not solid colors. They are composed of hundreds of bits of different colors in a mosaic that represent the Jews of Europe who produced us over the last hundreds of years and more. If we pick an arbitrary starting point twenty generations ago, we should have a million unique ancestors. But there were not a million Jews in Europe five-six hundred years ago, so we must have drawn from most of them multiple times. This is endogamy and I have discussed it here before - and of course many others have as well. Our great-grandparents' tapestries - indeed our own as well - include several instances of most of those colors and many instances of some of them.

But the point I am after is that for Jews who are descended from Jewish lines, those great-grandparents will have very much the same colors. Any two will preserve the DNA of much the same ancestors, as will our grandparents, our parents and ourselves. And as we continue propagating within the tribe, so will our children and our grandchildren. We will be very much like our ancestors of ten and twelve generations ago and in that sense they are preserved to an extent that Genghis Khan and Charlemagne with their tiny scattered bits, can only wish for.

What is success for a population? Is it injecting tiny bits of your group DNA into other populations far and wide - populations who carry some bit of you but do not resemble you or reflect who you are?  Or is it propagation that ensures that twenty generations hence your people will be very much like you?

Note: I do not doubt that you can challenge what I write above using science, statistics or even history. If you do, you have missed my point.

Housekeeping notes
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