Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Queen of Sheba's every desire

If you accept the Bible's account, and the very unclear archeological evidence, after King David consolidated a central Middle Eastern kingdom, he was succeeded by the intellectual, peace-loving (but enslaving) King Solomon.  A fine BBC InOurTime discussion of this is worth listening to.

This took place around 950 BC and there is no direct documentary evidence beyond the Biblical accounts that were written centuries later and are not entirely consistent.  But one thing that was recounted was the King Solomon was widely admired and respected as a wise and temperate leader.  Visitors such as royalty and scholars came to see his kingdom for themselves and to meet the great Solomon.  Among those visitors was the legendary Queen of Sheba.  Powerful and important in her own right, Ms Sheba visited Solomon, bringing gifts of course, and she had a good visit.  But there is no serious evidence that the encounter was sexual.  The only, wholly enigmatic (at most) passage, in Kings, is that when Solomon gave her "all her desire, whatsoever she asked," she left satisfied. 

This makes for good movie fodder,  helps keep Biblical scholars employed, and gives preachers things to bore their congregations with on Sundays.  Whether it is literally true or not is disputed, but most scholars seem to think these characters did exist and were important in their time.

Now along comes....Science!  The latest Big Story of hyperbolic marketing is that new DNA sequence analysis has found that there seem to be some Middle Eastern genetic variants found in Ethiopians.  Unbelievably, this has been hyped by BBCNews and by the scientists involved, as supporting the Solomon-Sheba tryst--something not even at all clearly mentioned in the only source about these people that exists.  The lead author, an otherwise respectable scientist, argues that the estimated timing of the detected gene flow, 3000 years ago, 'fits' the Biblical story:
"By analysing the genetics of Ethiopia and several other regions we can see that there was gene flow into Ethiopia, probably from the Levant, around 3,000 years ago, and this fits perfectly with the story of the Queen of Sheba."
Lead researcher Luca Pagani of the University of Cambridge and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute added: "The genetic evidence is in support of the legend of the Queen of Sheba."
Well, that's within 2000 years of the alleged tryst so it must be true!  A real Night to Remember.

In an incredible segue, according to the BBC story, the scientists used this supposed finding to justify looking at (you guessed it again!) more DNA sequence from these populations, probably to include whole genome sequence so that not one lascivious tidbit is missed.  And what was the segue?  It's to reconstruct the history of this part of the world....60,000 years ago!   We guess this is to scope out the really first Shebanger.

Except to ask about the cost justification, there's no reason not to be interested in using DNA to reconstruct history--anywhere in the world.  There is no special justification for doing this in the Middle East except our own Middle (navel) East gazing.  DNA data are a powerful too for reconstructing our population ancestry, to be sure.  But the whole thing is a non sequitur, because the reported--or should we say distorted--genetic finding is absolutely irrelevant to any Biblical story. And the authors know this very well.

Any geneticist worth his or her PCR machine would have to tell you that to find some evidence of gene flow between populations long inhabiting reasonably nearby parts of the world is nothing of a surprise.   If we know anything, we know that humans gradually emerged out of northeastern Africa tens of thousands of years ago.  Given human mating patterns between nearby local populations, especially along rivers and so on where they populations would interact, genetic variation 'flows' from place to place.  And once large, complex, agricultural cultures arose, with their trade networks, navigation by boat or beast, and other social and political interactions, gene flow would increase if anything. 

Even if only a small fraction of all mating, if you look at enough DNA from enough people, you expect to see traces of this.  And the Queen of Sheba, if there ever was a Queen of Sheba, may well have visited King Solomon, if there ever was a King Solomon.  But to make some special story about it, as if it reflects anything other than normal human geographic variation, is to misrepresent the data and, of course, its import. 

There's a point at which science should not be confused with Hollywood.  For anyone--scientist or journalist or journal--to portray this as any kind of evidence whatsoever for a particular not-even-Biblically-alleged liaison is pure BullSheba.


Rebecca said...

Ken, while your point still stands, I must chime in that the "alleged liaison" is a central event in a key Ethiopian Christian religious text called the Kebra Nagast. For Ethiopian Christians, it is not a Biblical footnote but the traditional origin of Ethiopia's line of kings and a core part of their traditional identity.

Ken Weiss said...

I know that a lot of Ethiopian lore or whatever upholds the story of the Queen of Sheba, but when was that text written and by whom? The Wiki entry says it's 700 years old, much farther removed from the event or non-event than the Bible.

We have no particular interest in whether the story is true or not. And how would the authors of the texts, Biblical or Nagast, know? Did the Queen go home and boast about it?

But the point stands, and we expressed it that way, that the finding of some DNA variants is absolutely irrelevant and not surprising.

If one were doing a Bayesian analysis of the Sheba story, this could not move the probability of its truth one measurable iota. Nor, I would add, would failure to find any outside variants in a small sample of Ethiopians. Nor indeed in a total sample of all Ethiopians (most genetic variation disappears rather quickly just to drift).

So you can accept the Sheba stories or not, without fear of genetic contradiction, but without being able to claim serious support, either.

James Goetz said...

Hmm... "Come hither Solomon. I desire to return to my throne as a single mother"?