Rector assessed: Moffat blasted over “laughable” scientific claims
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.
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.
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.
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
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“