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Jacob's Legacy: Slightly Interesting Answers on Jewish Genetics, But Mostly Just More Questions

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As a geneticist and a Jew, David Goldstein is, as he writes, well-positioned to study the genetic history of his people. But his book, Jacob's Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History, is a much more modest undertaking, a slim volume of six chapters and 119 pages. He summarizes research that he and others have done to explore a few distinct questions about Jewish heritage. Among them: does the tradition of the priestly heritage of the Cohens -- that has supposedly been passed from father to son literally for thousands of years -- have any basis in the DNA of modern Cohens? Do the Lemba, a southern African tribe who speak a Bantu language but claim Jewish heritage, have a genetic connection to other Jews? Does the DNA of Ashkenazic Jews tell us about their geographic history? Are the Jews genetically predisposed to intelligence?

Unfortunately, good scientist that he is, Goldstein is unwilling to make any categorical statements whatsoever about the data, usually only permitting himself to admit an intriguing possibility. So while that makes for more rigorous scholarship, it makes for a less exciting read. (Here are the answers to the above questions, by the way. The Cohens: the father-to-son thing is probably real. The Lemba: possibly. The Ashkenazim: really hard to say. Intelligence: who knows.) After reading the book, a reader will have a greater appreciation for the state of genetic history as a discipline, though the hardships come through a lot more clearly than the benefits: while there are certain questions that it can help answer, it seems to offer fairly vague rewards to the effort involved.

The book's a quick, easy read. It's fine for a lay reader with a casual interest, but it might be ideal as an assignment for a high school or college introduction to genetics. The two subjects are individually fascinating, but it's clear from this book that the answers offered by current genetic science are far from satisfying. Perhaps if Goldstein ever gets around to writing a sequel, he can revisit a chapter or two with new data and change a "possibly" to "probably."

Rating: 70

Crossposted on Remingtonstein.