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Theological Notebook: Articles on Jewish Genetic History and Hawking Being Dumb on Religion

Just jotting down a couple of more-or-less random articles I noted today. A New York Times article on the sort of genetic history that we've seen exercises in over the last few year was of some interest, even if just more-or-less confirming what the historians already told us. That might give us some greater confidence in this sort of genetic surveying. The Stephen Hawking comments were more of interest just for being the sort of profoundly ignorant thing very highly-educated people are capable of saying when they venture outside their fields of competence. (A warning I should note myself, I'm sure.) Hawking repeats the sorts of "science versus religion" generalizations that would have made him sound totally bad-ass and cutting-edge in the mid-19th century, and still such among those who are repeating 19th century platitudes today. I might be able to use this to open up class reading and discussion in this direction for the sorts of lessons where I introduce students to the history of ideas regarding this material, so they can start to learn the difference between what is actually known in the academy by those who study these questions, and what is known in pop culture.

In the meantime, it's the Feast of my man Colum Cille, I just realized, and I'm suddenly possessed of an urge to be in Derry tonight.

Studies Show Jews’ Genetic Similarity
Stephen Hawking on Religion: 'Science Will Win'

Studies Show Jews’ Genetic Similarity
Published: June 9, 2010

Jewish communities in Europe and the Middle East share many genes inherited from the ancestral Jewish population that lived in the Middle East some 3,000 years ago, even though each community also carries genes from other sources — usually the country in which it lives.

That is the conclusion of two new genetic surveys, the first to use genome-wide scanning devices to compare many Jewish communities around the world.

A major surprise from both surveys is the genetic closeness of the two Jewish communities of Europe, the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim. The Ashkenazim thrived in Northern and Eastern Europe until their devastation by the Hitler regime, and now live mostly in the United States and Israel. The Sephardim were exiled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497 and moved to the Ottoman Empire, North Africa and the Netherlands.

The two genome surveys extend earlier studies based just on the Y chromosome, the genetic element carried by all men. They refute the suggestion made last year by the historian Shlomo Sand in his book “The Invention of the Jewish People” that Jews have no common origin but are a miscellany of people in Europe and Central Asia who converted to Judaism at various times.

Jewish communities from Europe, the Middle East and the Caucasus all have substantial genetic ancestry that traces back to the Levant, except for Ethiopian Jews and two Judaic communities in India, which are genetically much closer to their host populations.

The surveys provide rich data about the genetic ancestry of various Jewish populations that is of great interest to historians. “I’m constantly impressed by the manner in which the geneticists keep moving ahead with new projects and illuminating what we know of history,” said Lawrence H. Schiffman, a professor of Judaic studies at New York University.

One of the surveys was conducted by Gil Atzmon of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Harry Ostrer of New York University and appears in the current American Journal of Human Genetics. The other, led by Doron M. Behar of the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa and Richard Villems of the University of Tartu in Estonia, is published in Thursday’s edition of the journal Nature.

Dr. Atzmon and Dr. Ostrer have developed a way of timing demographic events from the genetic elements shared by different Jewish communities. Their calculations show that Iraqi and Iranian Jews separated from other Jewish communities about 2,500 years ago. This genetic finding presumably reflects a historical event, the destruction of the First Temple at Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C. and the exile of much of the Jewish population to his capital at Babylon.

The shared genetic elements suggest that members of any Jewish community are related to one another as closely as are fourth or fifth cousins in a large population, which is about 10 times higher than the relationship between two people chosen at random off the streets of New York City, Dr. Atzmon said.

Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities have roughly 30 percent European ancestry, with most of the rest from the Middle East, the two surveys find. The two communities seem very similar to each other genetically, which is unexpected because they have been separated for so long.

One explanation is that they come from the same Jewish source population in Europe. The Atzmon-Ostrer team found that the genomic signature of Ashkenazim and Sephardim was very similar to that of Italian Jews, suggesting that an ancient population in northern Italy of Jews intermarried with Italians could have been the common origin. The Ashkenazim first appear in Northern Europe around 800 A.D., but historians suspect that they arrived there from Italy.

Another explanation, which may be complementary to the first, is that there was far more interchange and intermarriage than expected between the two communities in medieval times, despite the fact that they spoke different languages.

The genetics confirms a trend noticed by historians: that there was more contact between Ashkenazim and Sephardim than suspected, with Italy as the linchpin of interchange, said Aron Rodrigue, a Stanford University historian and expert on Sephardic and Ottoman history.

A common surname among Italian Jews is Morpurgo, meaning someone from Marburg in Germany. Also, Dr. Rodrigue said, one of the most common names among the Sephardim who settled in the Ottoman Empire is Eskenazi, indicating that many Ashkenazim had joined the Sephardic community there.

The two genetic surveys indicate “that there may be common origins shared by the two groups, but also that there were extensive contacts and settlements,” Dr. Rodrigue said.

Hebrew is generally thought to have been a dead language from around the second century B.C. until it was revived as the language of modern Israel. But it could have served as the lingua franca between the Ashkenazic community, speaking Yiddish, and the Ladino-speaking Sephardim. “When Jews met each other, they spoke Hebrew,” Dr. Schiffman said, referring to the medieval period.

Stephen Hawking on Religion: 'Science Will Win'
Renowned Physicist Shares Thoughts on God, Fatherly Advice in an Interview With ABC's Diane Sawyer
June 7, 2010—

Celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking knows more about the universe than almost any other person ever to walk the planet, but some answers still escape even him.

When asked by ABC News' Diane Sawyer about the biggest mystery he'd like solved, he said, "I want to know why the universe exists, why there is something greater than nothing."

Hawking, who was honored last week at the World Science Festival in New York, is famous for probing the deepest questions of the cosmos.

Until he stepped down last fall, he held the post of Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, a position once held by Sir Isaac Newton, the "father of physics" himself.

During Hawking's 30 years in the post, he gave his colleagues new ways to look at the universe. But he also gave the public, through his many books and occasional appearances, a way to connect with the often obscure world of theoretical physics.

'Brief History of Time' Is an International Best-Seller

"Stephen has had a tremendous impact on our understanding of the universe, particularly of warp space and warp time in the universe, black holes, the origin of the universe," said physicist Kip Thorn at last week's World Science Festival event honoring Hawking.

Hawking's most well-known book, "A Brief History of Time," sold more than 9 million copies and is an international best-seller. He's even made brief cameos in pop culture staples like "The Simpsons" and "Star Trek."

But exploring the origins of time inevitably leads to questions about the ultimate origins of everything and what, if anything, is behind it all.

"What could define God [is thinking of God] as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of that God," Hawking told Sawyer. "They made a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant an accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible."

When Sawyer asked if there was a way to reconcile religion and science, Hawking said, "There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works."

Hawking: Alien Visit Would Be Like Columbus' Arrival in the Americas

Hawking, 68, was diagnosed with the motor neuron disorder ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, when he was 21. He was told that he likely would not live more than a few years.

But on his personal website he said that with "a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before."

"I suddenly realized that there were a lot of worthwhile things I could do if I were reprieved," he said.

He went on to have a family (he has three children and one grandchild) and, though his condition progressed, he continued his research unabated with the help of a wheelchair and, later, an electronic speech synthesizer.

Though Hawking no longer holds his position with Cambridge University, he continues to hold the public's attention.

In April, he grabbed headlines after the premiere of the Discovery Channel series, "Into the Universe With Stephen Hawking."

Aliens Might Look to Conquer, Colonize, Hawking Said

In the program, he said it is likely that alien life exists, but a visit from extraterrestrials might be similar to Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas.

"If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans," he said. "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet."

He also speculated that aliens' capabilities "would be only limited by how much power they could harness and control, and that could be far more than we might first imagine."

It might even be possible for aliens to harvest the energy from an entire star, he added.

"Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach," Hawking said.

Hawking to His Children: Look Up at the Stars

But though Hawking may think that looking for aliens is not a wise choice, his daughter Lucy, with whom he has written a children's book, told Sawyer that she disagrees.

"We have a fundamental disagreement on that one," she said good-naturedly. " Because I think if they're so smart that they could destroy us, then it doesn't matter if we look for them or not. Because if they're that clever, they know we're here. They can find us whether we look for them or not."

But Lucy said she and her father agree on many other things.

"We like the bustle, we like the excitement, we like the lights, we like the company," she said. "We like all the complicated things that human civilization has created."

As Hawking's children navigate the many complexities of human life, he told Sawyer that he's offered up three pieces of advice.

"One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it," he said. "Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don't throw it away."

Copyright © 2010 ABC News Internet Ventures
Tags: faith and reason, historical, judaism, new york times, nonsense in academia, secularism/modernity, theological notebook

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