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New Book Takes a Look at What's Underneath Americans' Skin

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The US is often called a melting pot of cultures, languages, and ethnicities. The country's history is rife with migrations from all over the world, and combined with the Native Americans, the result is a unique mixture not often found in the rest of the world. So what really constitutes an American, and what makes one American different from another?

In his newest book — DNA USA: A Genetic Biography of America — University of Oxford geneticist and author Bryan Sykes seeks to answer that question by examining the most basic foundation of who people are: their DNA. "As a geneticist, what I found most appealing about America was that it was the place where the genes from three great continents converge," Sykes writes. "Like a tide maelstrom, great currents of DNA slide into one another with powerful force." The US could be viewed as a kind of fun puzzle, genetically speaking, for researchers to sort out.

To get a true picture, Sykes says, it is necessary to go back to the ancestral homelands of many Americans to see where they originated, then look at how those disparate origins blended. More importantly, he asks, how do those origins dictate how Americans perceive themselves, and are those perceptions accurate? What he finds is that the criteria people use to separate themselves from each other — skin color, religion, ethnicity — matter little when it comes to their DNA. White Americans have African genes, African Americans have European genes, descendants of Spanish Catholics have genes usually found in Jewish lineages, and so on. The chromosome portraits he paints of people of various origins show how intermixed the DNA of most Americans really is.

DNA USA is a marvelous book — thoroughly researched, engagingly written, and, most importantly, interesting. And it is hard to miss how relevant the book is in today's America, where division between groups seems to be increasing. "My hope is that you will come away with the feeling that you have glimpsed another world. A world that mocks the artificial divisions we have created for ourselves," Sykes writes in closing. "A world made up of corpuscles of DNA that each of us has inherited from our myriad ancestors. … We are their privileged custodians in this world for a few short years." Despite his decidedly purple prose, Sykes makes a sound point — in the end, people are made up of similar bits of genetic matter, and maybe the things that make them different are really too superficial to matter.

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