Rector assessed: Moffat blasted over “laughable” scientific claims

March 7, 2013 7:45 am 11 comments
Photo: Celeste Sloman

Photo: Celeste Sloman

Members of the scientific community have rounded on Alistair Moffat, St Andrews’ Rector, after he claimed that his company, BritainsDNA, had discovered the grandson of Eve and nine descendants of the Queen of Sheba.

Speaking to The Saint, Profes­sor David Balding and Dr Vincent Plagnol, both statistical geneticists at University College London, said they were stunned by Mr Moffat’s claims. “It’s laughable how wrong it is. The guy has such an utter confi­dence in what he says. He seems to be able to state things as if they have to be true,” Dr Plagnol said.

However, what began as an aca­demic debate has seen Mr Moffat issue threats of legal action against the pair, who told The Saint they felt intimidated and that their academic freedoms had been threatened.

In a series of written responses to questions from The Saint, Mr Moffat rejected the criticism and defended his company’s activities. He also denied he was using legal methods to stifle academic debate.

The story so far

In a Radio 4 programme in July 2012, Alistair Moffat spoke about scientific research carried out by his company, BritainsDNA. The company, which charges customers between £170 and £200 for a saliva test, promises to analyse individual DNA and purports to answer the fundamental question of where we all come from. “Your origins, your ancestors, the people who made you will emerge from the shadows as our research reaches back into the dark­ness of the deep past – your past,” the website asserts.

During the four minute interview on the Today programme, Mr Moffat, who has had no formal academic training as a geneticist, told listen­ers that as a result of the scientific work performed by BritainsDNA, they had “discovered the Bible, the Old Testament, beginning to come alive.”

However, when Jim Naughtie, a friend of Mr Moffat’s who endorsed his campaign to become Rector in 2012, quipped, “You can feel the let­ters coming in now,” neither man could have imagined the furore that would erupt amongst parts of the scientific community.

adam and eve imageYou won’t ‘Adam and Eve’ it

Mr Moffat claimed that BritainsD­NA had uncovered the “grandson of Eve”, a man named Ian Kinnaird, later telling the Daily Telegraph: “It is an astonishing result and means he could have been in the ‘Garden of Eden’.”

Professor David Balding, an ex­pert in genetic evolution and envi­ronment at UCL, was astonished when he heard Mr Moffat’s asser­tions on Today, expressing shock at the sweeping nature of many of his statements.

“There are the good guys who present their results and there are al­ways caveats. But then you get these guys coming in with very simplified stories that undermine the serious side of the work we do,” he said. He explained that he wants Mr Moffat to retract many of the statements he made.

He contested Mr Moffat’s claim that BritainsDNA had discovered the “grandson of Eve,” telling The Saint: “It is very misleading to say that he’s the son of Eve because we simply don’t know that.”

Dr Vincent Plagnol, an expert in neurogenetics at UCL, also dis­missed Mr Moffat’s claim. “Mito­chondrial Eve” is used as a symbol to represent our early ancestors but Dr Plagnol blogged: “While we can put some meaning to the concept of “Eve” in population genetics, this is far removed from the biblical inter­pretation implied here.

“Being two mutations away from Eve is highly implausible: we are all separated from Eve by the same amount of time and approximately the same number of generations.”

Mr Moffat dismissed this criti­cism, however. He told The Saint: “Ian Kinnaird’s result shows that his L1b1a1 mtDNA shows he belongs to the second deepest branch of the human family tree…Mr Kinnaird’s markers placed him deeper in the human family tree than anyone else in Britain.”

The BBC failed to respond when The Saint asked if they would al­low qualified scientists of genetics a voice in the debate by inviting them to speak on the Today programme at the next available opportunity. A spokesman instead said: “Alistair Moffat appeared on the Today pro­gramme to discuss the UK’s genetic heritage. He was interviewed by Jim Naughtie as one of the presenters on the programme that morning and was asked to explain the findings of his project.”

Can genetics point the way to the Queen of Sheba?

Mr Moffat went on to claim that BritainsDNA had discovered nine people related to the Queen of She­ba, another assertion that has come under fire from Professor Balding. “We know nothing about the Queen of Sheba other than the Bible, which may well be true. But to say that someone has Sheban DNA, well, we have no idea,” he said.

“All it means is a type that’s rela­tively common in the area where we think Sheba was. If he had said: ‘Who knows, you may have the same mtDNA type as the Queen of Sheba,’ that might have been a reasonable thing to say. But he didn’t say that, and of course we don’t know any­thing about the Sheban people.”

Mr Moffat told The Saint that he believed the Queen of Sheba did ex­ist. He said: “There is undoubtedly such a thing as Sheban DNA…[They] are not correct when they say that the Queen of Sheba is known only through Biblical sources. There are others. It is my own view as a histo­rian that she did indeed exist and so did Sheba.”

A royal redhead

Dr Plagnol told The Saint that it was not only Mr Moffat’s comments on Radio 4that angered him but com­ments in a Daily Mail article about the chances of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s child being a redhead. “It is 52 per cent likely that Kate and Wills will have a red-haired child,” he was quoted as saying. Mr Mof­fat’s company is mentioned three times in the piece and readers are told at the end: “Anyone wishing to find out more about their ancestry or to sign up for a test should visit the BritainsDNA website at www.brit­ainsdna.com.” The claims were also picked up and reported by The Mir­ror and several other online newspa­pers.

Dr Plagnol poured scorn upon Mr Moffat’s claims. “They’re not just misunderstandings. You can’t get your facts a bit wrong about that,” he said. “The post is just so wrong, it’s incredible. Really, it’s astonishing.”

Professor Balding suggested that Mr Moffat had prioritised his own commercial interests. “This is just a strategy to get a lot of stories in the press and direct people towards their website and their business,” he said.

Mr Moffat has since admitted this was factually incorrect but insists he was misquoted. “After talking to the journalist, I thought he had got the quote wrong and rang him to make sure he had understood what I had said. I was talking about the chances of being a carrier, not a redhead. But he got it wrong anyway.

“That’s not the first time that has happened. Dr [Jim] Wilson calculates that the chance of the baby being a carrier is 39% and the probability of it being redhead is 5.8%. In any case, journalists almost always interpret material given to them, spin it, if you like.”

Mr Moffat added: “Popularising and attempting to make complex ideas accessible always involves sim­plification and generalities can some­times be over-extended and even mistakes can be made,” he said.

Further criticism

However, it was not only Profes­sor Balding and Dr Plagnol who dis­agreed with Mr Moffat’s claims. In a recent Guardian article, Mark Tho­mas, a professor of evolutionary ge­netics at UCL, was stinging in his assessment of BritainsDNA. Re­ferring to the company through­out the article, Professor Thomas wrote: “Perhaps it is harmless fun to speculate beyond the facts, armed with exciting new DNA technologies?

“Not really. It costs unwitting customers of the genetic ances­try industry a substantial amount of hard-earned cash, and it disillu­sions them about sci­ence and scientists when they learn the truth, which is almost always disappointing relative to the story they were told.

“Exaggerated claims from the consumer ancestry industry can also undermine the results of serious research about human genetic his­tory, which is cautiously and slowly building up a clearer picture of the human past for all of us,” he wrote.

Mr Moffat and chief scientist at BritainsDNA, Dr Jim Wilson, of Edinburgh University, rejected the idea that the company’s practice was bringing the science of genetics into disrepute. They said that it was nec­essary to simplify the complex idea of genetics and ancestry.

Alistair Moffat told The Saint: “It is very important to make science ac­cessible to the public, especially ge­netics, since we all have DNA. Most research, almost all universities and many projects depend on public sub­vention and widespread understand­ing support is essential if that use of public money is to continue.

“I gave a live interview on the radio, not something that was re­corded and I was not writing a peer-reviewed paper for an academic journal,” he said.

Dr Wilson added: “I am fully committed to improving the genetic ancestry products available to cus­tomers and also to increasing public understanding of science in this area and feel that I have already contrib­uted to this ideal in no small way through the establishment of Brit­ainsDNA, giving many public talks and contributing to television and radio broadcasts.”

Genetic ancestry testing

Professor Thomas was also criti­cal of BritainsDNA’s techniques. The company says that it analyses the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA which analyses your father and your mother’s line respectively. However, as this information only tells you about the father of your fa­ther and the mother of your mother, there are many lines of ancestry that are neglected. “The simplicity of how Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA are inherited is part of their appeal in ancestry testing: you don’t have to worry about that inconven­ient doubling of your ancestors with each generation back in time. You only have one father, one father’s fa­ther, etc,” Professor Thomas wrote in The Guardian.

“But the price of that simplicity is irrelevance: those two lineages rep­resent a rapidly diminishing fraction of your ancestry the further back in time you go. It may be the case your mitochondrial DNA lineage came to Britain with the Vikings – although that would be extremely difficult to demonstrate scientifically – but, if true, this would still say very little about your origins,” he wrote.

Mr Moffat told The Saint that he did not accept that BritainsDNA’s work is limited. “The Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA may repre­sent only a small proportion of our ancestral lineages but they are the one from which we can extract the most information, some of which cannot be discovered from other parts of the genome,” he said.

Legal threats

However, what began as an aca­demic dispute over genetics has sparked threats of legal action from Mr Moffat. When Professor Balding, Professor Thomas and Dr Plagnol heard Mr Moffat’s comments on the Today programme, they wrote a letter expressing their concerns over the accuracy of his claims.

They told The Saint that rather than attempting to engage in scien­tific debate, Mr Moffat resorted to legal threats to silence the scientists. Dr Plagnol said: “Any type of le­gal threat is an ominous sign for an academic debate.” Professor Bald­ing and Dr Plagnol told The Saint that they had felt intimidated by Mr Moffat’s threats and consulted the Provost at UCL. A spokesman for St Andrews told The Saint that the Uni­versity had received correspondence from UCL on the matter but declined to comment further.

Mr Moffat, told The Saint that what Dr Plagnol and Professor Tho­mas called a failure to engage in sci­entific debate was actually the natu­ral reaction to grossly defamatory comments. “It is a complete untruth to state that we used legal action to suppress or inhibit scientific debate in any way,” he said.

“Professor Balding defamed our company and we asked our solicitors to ask him not to repeat that defama­tion. That is all. We welcome debate, and while we disagree with Profes­sor Thomas’ views profoundly, he is of course entitled to hold them. What he is not entitled to do is to state untruths, and that is what he has done.”

Dr Wilson said that he and Brit­ainsDNA had attempted numerous times to engage with the UCL scien­tists and that they felt forced to issue threats of legal action. He explained, saying: “This was done to protect the business, and the jobs of its staff, a response any company would take. We did not, and do not, wish to pre­vent scientific debate on the topic.

“Our lawyers’ letter made it very clear that we encourage debate and had no difficulty with differences of view, which has always been our po­sition on this matter,” he said.

Behind the story 

“Adam and Eve” on the front of Newsweek in 1988 sparked international interest in the origins of man

“Adam and Eve” on the front of
Newsweek in 1988 sparked international
interest in the origins of
man

Looking into further familial ties that genealogical sites allow is a homecoming

For as far back as human history stretches, man has always been intrigued by his origins (Cyprien Pearson writes). Simple recordings of births, marriages, and deaths have been passed down generations in the sole purpose of explaining individual family’s his­tories and answering one common human question: “Who am I?”

With the modern technology of today, especially the Internet, a myriad of genealogical websites have cropped up. From Ancestry.com to BritainsDNA, each prom­ises a look into history through varied means of data collection and family linking. A few sites even offer DNA cheek swab kits that begin to piece together a framework of family origins from all around the world, and through their universal popularity, members are able to connect with newly discovered distant relatives.

It is a question of iden­tity that leads one to sub­scribe to such websites and networks. Especially in immigrant nations like America, there is a per­sistent wonder at when one’s family migrated, where they came from, and more importantly who they were.

The look into further familial ties that ge­nealogical sites allow is something of a homecom­ing – a way of “know­ing” your ancestors and discovering the genetic, social, and circumstantial influences that mould each and every one of us.

Also read: “Warring academics clash over genetic techniques

11 comments

  • Jim Bob's Parole Officer

    Greatest apologies for that, Jim Bob is currently on parole for Grevious Idiocy and will be returned to his grubby little cell in due course

  • This guy is a massive embarrassment to the University. Considering the rectorship is such an honour, I’m surprised students can’t find a more impressive figure to represent them. Perhaps he and Dunion have lowered its prestige.

  • J.H. Ramsay

    He should have some respect and resign.

  • He helped me prove I’m the messiah, so, swings and roundabouts…

  • Jim Bob's Parole Officer

    Pardon me for interluding again gentlemen, but I whole-heatedly agree with you. This comment he made to the media, and his hideous forays into profit-making in general, entirely negate any work he has done for the student body. Internship funds for students, equality for women- bah! Bring back hanging I say!

  • Given his controversial nomination and election to the position of Rector, and then the controversial appointment of his first Assessor… Yeah. Bit of a D-Bag.

  • We could point out that the person making these allegations has been nursing a vendetta against Moffat for years, but since you all seem to still be bitter over his election, maybe that wouldn’t help.
    Also, ‘controversial appointment?’ What was controversial about appointing Kate Andrews? A bright young woman I happen to disagree with politically, but who is still extremely intelligent and capable. If you’re referring to her relationship with Sam Fowles, I have only to say that not appointing her based on who she was dating at the time would have been really, really silly…

  • The Saintly Elders are pleased

  • comradewhoopie

    I just read his claim that the gene for red hair is going extinct due to brighter sunlight, the result of Global Warming! I’m certain increased CO2 has nothing to do with making the sun brighter, the atmosphere more transparent or the Equator moving North.

What do you think?

More from The Saint

  • West Sands has become health risk because of campervans, says councillor

    West Sands has become health risk because of campervans, says councillor

    Photo credit: Henry Legg Famed for its sprawling sand dunes, the two mile long expanse of West Sands that stretches out alongside the St Andrews Links is the last place you would expect to pose a health risk because of overcrowding. But a Fife councillor has complained that the free parking, summer weather...

    Read more →
  • EIFF presents: Tony Benn: Will and Testament

    EIFF presents: Tony Benn: Will and Testament

    Tony Benn: Will and Testament is an intimate look at the life of British socialist, anti-war campaigner, husband, and father, Tony Benn, once called the ‘most dangerous man in Britain.’ The film received its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival with its premiere selling out...

    Read more →
  • Students take to the stands as Rory romps to victory

    Students take to the stands as Rory romps to victory

    Last Sunday the world watched as Rory Mcilroy raised the fabled Claret Jug on the links at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake. People swarmed around televisions whilst the fairways and greens were surrounded with expected spectators. On the grandstands at the 18th green however, the members of the University...

    Read more →
  • Leuchars could become space port by 2018

    Leuchars could become space port by 2018

    RAF Leuchars has been named as a potential site for Britain’s first commercial space port. Until recently a fully functioning RAF base, the site is currently transitioning to the army. Now, however, in plans set out by government ministers, Fife could become a leading centre for space travel. Eight...

    Read more →
  • Internet use alters perceptions of beauty

    Internet use alters perceptions of beauty

    In a study by University of St Andrews scientists, it has been determined that access to the internet changes what people find attractive in men and women. The first study of its kind, it compared people with internet access to those in the same country without. The results proved that those with internet...

    Read more →