On being English

I’m pleased to hear that the Nobel Prize for Literature this year has gone to Kazuo Ishiguro. The Nobel Press Release said: “The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2017 is awarded to the English author Kazuo Ishiguro, ‘who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world'”. That description may surprise some unfamiliar with him, when they see the name, but his “Englishness” was stressed with pleasure by an erudite interviewer on the BBC.

My own pleasure is partly because he’s a fellow townsman of mine. Not being a great aficionado of the modern novel, I’ve only read The Remains of the Day, and it is brilliant, and utterly … English. But it seems Ishiguro came to England when he was only six, his father being an oceanographer, and once he overcame the exoticism of the surroundings he found himself in, he more or less forgot his Japanese origins.

In fact he went to the very same small state primary school – Stoughton Primary – that my father had been to some forty years earlier. Only whereas my father gained a scholarship to be one of the 10% or so of non-fee paying working class kids attending the Royal Grammar School, Guildford, Ishiguro benefited from a thoroughly funded state system which got him a successful interview at Woking Grammar School, regarded as perhaps the second best grammar school in the area – but then I’m biased, as a Guildford Grammar alumnus. I do find it odd to think that we probably regularly passed each other in Guildford Bus Station on the way to or from school (I was a couple of years older, and had only a couple of friends at his school).

The excuse for raising this here is that it somewhat reminds of what (as I remember) was a personal discussion with Joshua Swamidass following on this post arising from the hypothesis of genealogical Adam, in which I suggested that the Hebrew term adam for man may not always have quite the universality we assume. For some reason Joshua raised a separate matter, about whether, and how much, the Bible describes human inheritance in terms of adoption, rather than simply genetic inheritance.

That certainly raises interesting questions, in that genealogy, as ordinary people practice it, very much includes as significant other relationships than natural generation. For many adopted people, especially when their adoption was early in life, both emotionally and in terms of their characteristics they often owe more to their adoptive parents than to their birth family, despite stories of separated twins choosing the same hobbies or clothes.

As I considered the question, my first recollection was the importance of adoption in the New Testament. The believer’s relationship with God is sometimes described in such terms, as we become adopted children of God in Christ. And that gives us, we read, the same privileges and, ultimately, even the same character as the family into which we are “reborn”.

It’s rather harder to think of Old Testament parallels to that, and of course that’s the context for thinking about an historical Adam, and inheritance “in the flesh”. There is a great stress on genealogy in the Old Testament, to the extent that after the return from exile, some were excluded from the levitical priesthood because they couldn’t prove their bodily descent from Aaron.

And yet a little reading between the lines shows that that is not the entire story. You may remember that when Israel came out of Egypt, a good number of non-Hebrews came out with them, throwing in their lot with the new would-be nation. And as far as we know, they became part of the covenant community.

Then, too, it is clear from the Pentateuch as well as from archaeology that the occupation of Canaan was far more a matter of cultural infiltration and intermarriage than it was of military conquest, still less genocide. It is no surprise, therefore, to find that the genetic makeup of Jews nowadays is pretty close to that of the levantine population as a whole, just as “Anglo-Saxon” England’s genetic profile is, in the greater part, that of the founder-population after the Ice Age. We too experienced a conquest that was more cultural than genetic.

I recently read a quote (it may have been from Steve Olson, but possibly a more famous name) that nationality is a very different concept than race, being so much to do with enculturation rather than descent. I relate to that with my Irish ancestry, but Kazuo Ishiguro demonstrates it in spades. And I guess most American readers ought, at least, to be very aware of it as they socialise with fellow-Americans bearing surnames originating from every corner of the globe. It’s not only African Americans who return to their ancestral homeland and realise that their genes, in practice, give them little sense of belonging there. I know that I feel a Guildfordian, though only the third generation of  even my most Guildfordianancestors, whereas County Roscommon is an interesting foreign place, though my people lived there for centuries.

To be honest, I’m not sure what bearing all this has on the genealogical Adam. Possibly nothing. And yet if, in God’s estimation, adoption to a tribe or culture is a real aspect of the genealogy so important in the Bible – and it is if you count the number of Jesus’s ancestors who were outlanders in Luke’s genealogy – then the importance of Adam to the origin of the human race as we now have it may be even more extensive than what is shown by the “genealogical Adam” hypothesis.

And by the same token, conventional population genetics might be even more marginal a consideration in that regard.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to On being English

  1. Robert Byers says:

    My mother is english/Liverpool. I am not at all. i am Canadian.
    I don’t agree being English or Canadian is a matter of geography. its a real people and a real identity.
    I understand the term is bRITISH. i know this is used for foreignors/ethnics to describe themselves so as not to say they are English.
    How did this Nobel people know he was ENGLISH? I’m suspicious they are part of the movement philosophy to deny englishmen a real identity and say any citizen is English. HMMM
    I never heard of him.
    if he really wss bred in england and really forsakes ANY foreign identity then I agree you could say he is eNGLISH. not just British.
    however so many don’t, even if born there, and so they must prove it.
    Does he reject being Japanese?? As a people/identity? he rejects his parents identity?
    If so then he should be allowed to be English(since he came as a child). if not then NO he is another immigrant who is British by citizenship.
    English and cAnadian must mean something if they are something.
    They are by right of heritage

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