Genetics and Nation-Building in the Middle East

Episode 324

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Genetics have emerged as a new scientific tool for studying human ancestry and historical migration. And as research into the history of genetics demonstrates, genetics and other bioscientific approaches to studying ancestry were also integral to the transformation of the very national and racial categories through which ancestry has come to be described over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. In this podcast, we speak to Elise Burton about her research on the development of human genetics in the Middle East. Burton has studied the history of genetics within a comparative framework, examining the interrelated cases of human genetics research in Turkey, Israel, Iran, and elsewhere. In this episode, we focus in particular on the history of genetics in Turkey and its relationship to changing understandings of nation and race within the early Republic. In a bonus segment (see below), we also look under the hood of commercial genetic ancestry tests to understand present-day science within the context of these historical developments.

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Contributor Bios

Elise Burton just earned her PhD in History and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard in May 2017 and her BA in Middle Eastern Studies and Integrative Biology from UC Berkeley in May 2010. Come October, she will begin a Junior Research Fellowship at Newnham College, University of Cambridge.
Shireen Hamza is a doctoral student in the History of Science department at Harvard University. Her research focuses broadly on the history of science and medicine in the Islamicate Middle Ages, and more specifically on the history of women's health.
Chris Gratien holds a Ph.D. from Georgetown University's Department of History and is currently an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. His research focuses on the social and environmental history of the Ottoman Empire and the modern Middle East. He is currently preparing a monograph about the environmental history of the Cilicia region from the 1850s until the 1950s.
Maryam Patton is a PhD student at Harvard University in the History and Middle Eastern Studies program. She studies the history of ideas and books in the Early Modern Mediterranean.


Muzaffer Aksoy in his laboratory at Mersin State Hospital, with equipment purchased from a U.S. Blood Research Foundation grant, 1956." Image from Nursel Duruel, Çiğdem Altay, and Orhan N. Ulutin, eds. Bilime adanmış bir ömür: Muzaffer Aksoy (Ankara: Türkiye Bilimler Akademisi, 2005), p. 37.
The Turkish Anthropometry Survey in 1937, taken from Afet İnan, L’Anatolie, le pays de la “race” turque: recherches sur les caractères anthropologiques des populations de la Turquie (enquête sur 64,000 individus) (Genève: Imprimerie Albert Kundig, 1939), p.57.

Bonus Segment

In this bonus conversation, Chris Gratien and Elise Burton reflect on the science behind commercial genetic ancestry tests and the National Geographic Genographic Project within their historical context.

For Genographic Project Reference Populations, see

For Genographic Project Biogeographical Regions, see

An example of distribution of "Regional Ancestry" as visualized within the National Geographic Genographic 2.0 Project (screenshot taken 15 July 2017)
An example of "Regional Ancestry" breakdown and comparison with "Reference Populations" within National Geographic Genographic 2.0 Project (screenshot taken 15 July 2017)
An example of a "Reference Population" breakdown within the National Geographic Genographic 2.0 Project. Percentages indicate portions of "Biographical Regions" represented within the typical regional ancestry of a particular reference population. In this case, the fact that modern-day Iran is subsumed within the "Arabia" biogeographical region has led to some confusion. While this representation does indeed suggest significant historical overlap in the populations of Iran and the Arabian peninsula, the fact that this shared biogeographical region is labeled as Arabia can lead to the mistaken conclusion that the data indicates that modern Iranians are "over 50% Arab." See and

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Episode No. 324
Release Date: 15 July 2017
Recording Location: Cambridge, MA
Audio editing by Chris Gratien
Music: from Excavated Shellac - Lili Labassi - Mazal Haye Mazal; from - Harmandali - Recep Efendi, Cemal Efendi; Baglamamin Dugumu - Necmiye Ararat and Muzaffer; Katibim (Uskudar'a Gider iken) - Safiye Ayla
Special thanks to Kara Günes for permission to use the composition "Istanbul"
Images and bibliography courtesy of Elise Burton

Select Bibliography

Human Genetics and Nation-Building

Primary Sources:

Aksoy, Muzaffer. “Abnormal Haemoglobins in Turkey.” In Abnormal Haemoglobins: A Symposium Organized by the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences, Established under the Joint Auspices of UNESCO and WHO, edited by J. H. P. Jonxis and J. F. Delafresnaye, 216–35. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1959.

———. “Brief Note: Hemoglobin S in Eti-Turks and the Allewits in Lebanon.” Blood 17, no. 5 (1961): 657–59.

———. “Sickle-Cell Trait in South Turkey.” The Lancet 265, no. 6864 (1955): 589–90.
Aksoy, Muzaffer, Elizabeth W. Ikin, Arthur E. Mourant, and Hermann Lehmann. “Blood Groups, Haemoglobins, and Thalassemia in Turks in Southern Turkey and Eti-Turks.” British Medical Journal, 1958, 937–39.

Aksoy, Muzaffer, and Hermann Lehmann. “The First Observation of Sickle-Cell Haemoglobin E Disease.” Nature 179, no. 4572 (1957): 1248–49.

Beckett, P. H. T. “ABO Blood Groups in Kerman, South Persia.” Man 56 (1956): 141.

Bonné, Batsheva. “Are There Hebrews Left?” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 24, no. 2 (1966): 135–45.

Bowman, James E., and Deryck G. Walker. “The Origin of Glucose-6-Phosphate Dehydrogenase Deficiency in Iran: Theoretical Considerations.” In Proceedings of the Second International Congress of Human Genetics (Rome, September 6-12, 1961), edited by Luigi Gedda, 1:583–86. Rome: Instituto G. Mendel, 1963.

Ikin, Elizabeth W. “Blood Group Distribution in the Near East.” In Proceedings of the Seventh Congress of the International Society of Blood Transfusion, Rome, September 3-6, 1958, edited by L. Holländer, 262–65. Basel: S. Karger, 1959.

İnan, Afet. L’Anatolie, le pays de la “race” turque: recherches sur les caractères anthropologiques des populations de la Turquie (enquête sur 64,000 individus). Genève: Imprimerie Albert Kundig, 1939.
İnan, Afet. Türkiye halkının antropolojik karakterleri ve Türkiye tarihi: Türk ırkının vatanı Anadolu (64.000 kisi üzerinde anket). Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımevi, 1947.

Irmak, Sadi. “Türk ırkının biyolojisine dair araştırmalar (kan gruplar ve parmak izleri).” In İkinci Türk Tarih Kongresi, İstanbul 20-25 Eylül 1937, 841–45. İstanbul: Kenan Matbaası, 1943.

Krischner, Harald, and M. Krischner. “The Anthropology of Mesopotamia and Persia C. The Anthropology of Persia.” Proceedings of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Amsterdam 35 (1932): 399–410.

Onur, Nureddin. “Kan grupları bakımından Türk ırkının menşei hakkında bir etüd.” In İkinci Türk Tarih Kongresi, İstanbul 20-25 Eylül 1937, 845–51. İstanbul: Kenan Matbaası, 1943.

Secondary Sources:

Abu El-Haj, Nadia. The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of
 Epistemology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Duruel, Nursel, Çiğdem Altay, and Orhan N. Ulutin, eds. Bilime adanmış bir ömür: Muzaffer Aksoy. Ankara: Türkiye Bilimler Akademisi, 2005.

Efron, John M. Defenders of the Race: Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de-Siecle Europe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

Ergin, Murat. Is the Turk a White Man?: Race and Modernity in the Making of Turkish Identity. Leiden: Brill, 2017.

Kirsh, Nurit. “Population Genetics in Israel in the 1950s: The Unconscious Internalization of Ideology.” Isis 94, no. 4 (2003): 631–55.

Maksudyan, Nazan. Türklüğü ölçmek: bilimkurgusal antropoloji ve Türk milliyetçiliğinin ırkçı çehresi, 1925-1939. Beyoğlu, İstanbul: Metis, 2005.

Ringer, Monica. Pious Citizens: Reforming Zoroastrianism in India and Iran. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011.

Salgırlı, Sanem Güvenç. “Eugenics for the Doctors: Medicine and Social Control in 1930s Turkey.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 66, no. 3 (2010): 281–312.

Schayegh, Cyrus. “Hygiene, Eugenics, Genetics, and the Perception of Demographic Crisis in Iran, 1910s–1940s.” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 13, no. 3 (2004): 335–61. doi:10.1080/1066992042000300684.

Zia-Ebrahimi, Reza. The Emergence of Iranian Nationalism: Race and the Politics of Dislocation. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

Interpreting Genetic Ancestry Tests

Technology used by the Genographic Project:

Elhaik, Eran, Elliott Greenspan, Sean Staats, Thomas Krahn, Chris Tyler-Smith, Yali Xue, Sergio Tofanelli, et al. “The GenoChip: A New Tool for Genetic Anthropology.” Genome Biology and Evolution 5, no. 5 (May 2013): 1021–31. doi:10.1093/gbe/evt066.

Critical Analyses of Genetic Ancestry Testing:

Bolnick, D. A., D. Fullwiley, T. Duster, R. S. Cooper, J. H. Fujimura, J. Kahn, J. S. Kaufman, et al. “The Science and Business of Genetic Ancestry Testing.” Science 318, no. 5849 (October 19, 2007): 399–400. doi:10.1126/science.1150098.

Duster, Troy. “A Post-Genomic Surprise: The Molecular Reinscription of Race in Science, Law and Medicine.” The British Journal of Sociology 66, no. 1 (March 2015): 1–27. doi:10.1111/1468-4446.12118.

Duster, Troy. “Response to Comments on ‘A Post-Genomic Surprise.’” British Journal of Sociology 66, no. 1 (2015): 83–92.

Sommer, Marianne. History within: The Science, Culture, and Politics of Bones, Organisms, and Molecules. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Wailoo, Keith, Alondra Nelson, and Catherine Lee, eds. Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012. See especially Chapter 7, 9, and 12.

“Debunking Genetic Astrology,” webpage produced by the Molecular and Cultural Evolution Lab at University College London:

Radio Broadcast: “The Business of Genetic Ancestry,” produced by Adam Rutherford. BBC Radio 4. May 26, 2015. Available to stream at, or to download at

Blog posts discussed:

Leyal Khalife, “DNA analysis proves Arabs aren't entirely Arab.” January 12, 2017. Available at

“National Geographic: Iranian natives’ genetic makeup is 56 percent Arabian!” January 15, 2017. Available at


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