by EWAN LAMB
An intermittent and sometimes acrimonious dispute involving Borders author, historian and businessman Alistair Moffat and genetics experts who challenge many of his claims concerning DNA discoveries has erupted again after a series of features by Mr Moffat launched in The Scotsman newspaper.
A team of researchers at University College London [UCL], whose members have been highly critical of publicity given to Mr Moffat and his internet businesses including BritainsDNA and ScotlandsDNA, developed a special website in a bid to "set the record straight".
The geneticists say they decided on this course of action because "the exaggerated claims made by BritainsDNA misled the public about what
is possible from genetic testing. Some of their stories were ludicrous,
which undermines the efforts of scientists who are more careful about
the degree of uncertainty associated with their findings".
Mr Moffat claims researchers working on his "project" - BritainsDNA charges individuals up to £250 for a DNA test - have traced chromosome sub-types back to the time of Adam and Eve. In Friday's Scotsman he told readers: "We have completed the first stage of an epic piece of research, nothing less than the beginnings of a family tree of all men on Earth."
He explains that men have two small pieces of DNA that are very informative about ancestry. He had discovered that his mother's DNA 'marker' had originated a long way from her birthplace in Hawick. It arose in the Indus Valley of Pakistan about 30,000 years ago. But his Y chromosome marker from his father was much younger, originating in Scandinavia about 2,000 years ago. "Viking raider meets the civilisation of Mohenjo-Daro!".
But Mark Thomas, Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at UCL told Not Just Sheep & Rugby "How could a so-called historian say 'Viking raider meets the civilisation of Mohenjo-Daro!' Did they have a time machine?"
Professor Thomas and a number of his fellow academics have "rubbished" claims made by Mr Moffat on a number of occasions since 2012 when the local historian was interviewed on BBC radio by veteran broadcaster James Naughtie. The geneticists who took issue with BritainsDNA say they were threatened with legal action at one point.
Mr Moffat and Mr Naughtie are fellow trustees of The Great Tapestry of Scotland, which is about to find a permanent home in a custom-built £6 million museum at Tweedbank, near Galashiels despite widespread public opposition.
The UCL website maintains that the 'for-profit' status of BritainsDNA was never revealed by the press
and the BBC, who only described it as "research" or a "project", thus
disguising its commercial nature. Crucially none of the "research"
appeared to have gone through the scientific process of peer review. They wanted to make editors more aware of the dangers of covert advertising
masquerading as science of public interest.
In a detailed critique of Friday's Scotsman feature, Professor Thomas told us: "Apart from the obvious attempt to wrap his business in sentimental nationalism, alarm bells first rang with 'our scientists can tell where and when in history these [DNA] markers arose, and often when approximately they arrived in Scotland'.
"They can estimate when they arose with some precision [and less accuracy], but where they arose and when they arrived in Scotland is much more problematic".
In a reference to ScotlandDNA's "epic piece of research" outlined by Mr Moffat in the article, the professor commented: "Is he claiming that Scotlands DNA has played an important part in building the Y chromosome tree of humans? Scientists have been publishing Y chromosome trees since the 1990s, and the latest and most detailed paper includes no contribution from Scotlands DNA 'scientists'".
Since ScotlandsDNA was launched in partnership with The Scotsman in late 2011, almost 8,000 Scots have taken DNA tests.
Friday's article - the first in a series of five - described how, on a huge layout, Mr Moffat's team had shown how 573 Y chromosome types descend from Adam and relate to each other. Work is continuing with new findings to double that number 'in the autumn of 2015'. These will include many newly discovered sub-types in Scotland.
According to Mr Moffat: "Our burgeoning customer database has allowed us to define many new and rarer branches of the Tree that have not yet been reported. What the Great Tree of Mankind shows, for the first time, is how distantly or how closely related large groups of men are. It depends on where their branch is".
However, Professor Thomas said: "Is Moffat implying that their 'research' gives us this 'first-time' window on the past? If he is I know a lot of real scientists who would find this claim outrageous".