Today’s top news story: Ian Gibson, a Norwich MP and former scientist has announced that a cluster of child diabetes cases in Norfolk may be caused by inbreeding. Cue, of course, all the usual jokes about Norfolk stereotypes: country yokels marrying their sister, and so on. Dr Gibson, interviewed on Today,* seemed rather affronted by any suggestion that he was being insulting. His response: he was using “inbreeding” in a purely technical manner which us laughing yokels don’t understand. I see.
Much as Dr Gibson has been criticised for “not understanding genetics” and so on, he may well have a point. As I’ve mentioned before, people don’t move around very much. In years gone by, people moved around even less; migration is hard work. It’s not too surprising, in other words, to find that illnesses with a strong genetic factor may have strong regional variations too.** It might be simplistic to say “diabetes may be regionally concentrated because of inbreeding,” because there are lots of other causative factors involved. You can’t pretend, though, that regional variations are unlikely to exist.
* only a few minutes ago! Damn, this blog can be up-to-the-minute occasionally.
** My psychotic aunt – clinically diagnosed, I’m not just being rude about her – is from Norfolk too. I wonder if anyone has looked to see if there are similar clusters of mental illnesses with a strong hereditary component.
Like a lot of people, I’ve spent a while today playing with the Surname Profiler website,* looking at how distant relatives are spread around the country, now, and 125 years ago. As I was expecting, in the 19th century my mother’s family was very heavily concentrated in one area:
…because we know from her genealogy research that her father’s ancestors have lived in this village and the neighbouring one for as far back as anyone can trace.
I was also expecting to find that today, we would be spread all over the country, what with modern transport making migration much easier.** However, our own family just demonstrates what the research project proved: in the words of the project leader, “migration is traumatic.” We don’t seem to have moved about much at all:
Of course, that’s for a name that isn’t common anywhere – that site suggests that the majority of people with our name live within our local phonebook area, and that phonebook lists about 30 numbers under it. If you have a more common name, individual family movements won’t show up. Another branch of my mother’s family – still with a fairly obscure name – is from Cornwall. In 1881, almost all of them lived west of Bristol:
Our branch of that family, at the time, lived in Brixton. Not the one in Devon, though, the one at the end of the Victoria line, in a completely blank part of their family map.
* Update, August 22nd 2020: It since seems to have disappeared from the Internet.
** “Nor should we forget the benefit in rural human genetics brought by the railway: with less intermarrying the ‘village idiot’ has disappeared” – David St. John Thomas, The Country Railway, 1976.