Speakers’ Corner – Why am I?

I love watching the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are.  Celebrities investigate their relatives and lineage.  There have been some memorable programmes over the years, like the Olympic gold medallist rower Mathew Pinsent, who discovered that he was directly descended from Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, and thus from King Edward I and William the Conqueror! 

There is something that drives humans to want to know, to connect to the past.  Perhaps, it comforts us in a world of turmoil and the realisation that we’re only here for a time.  Last night the composer and impresario Andrew Lloyd Weber was searching for a connection with the past as if to explain why he was what he was and why his brother Julian Lloyd Webber was a virtuoso on the cello.  He found that he had a relative living in the 17th century who was a composer of cello music.  It seemed to give Lloyd Webber peace.

Is that just a coincidence or evidence of the link between inherent genes within a family?  The debate about what we are born with and what is learned through experience has raged for over a century.  It was a controversial topic when I studied psychology as part of my first degree at university over forty years ago.  Behaviourists like Skinner showed with simple animal experiments how behaviours are learned, and that environment moulds our actions.  With rewards, actions can be manipulated.  The implication is that ‘free will’ does not exist; if it does, it is only for the privileged few. 

Like all academic debates, there are advocates for the extremes.  I come down in the middle, that we are born with innate possibilities but that the social environment is a major determinant of our behaviour.  However, the debate has developed with the science of genetics driven by the discovery of the double helix by Crick and Watson.  All human cells contain DNA. The 3 billion pairs of bases in each cell fit into a space six microns across – very small. If the DNA in one cell were extended, it would be two meters long. The human genome – all the genetic material in our DNA – is like the recipe to make a human being.  Therefore, with this biological link to the past, it seems irrefutable that a human’s interests, skills, and life choices will be related to their ancestry.  So, it shouldn’t have surprised me, or the viewers, that Andrew Lloyd Webber found musicians and theatre managers as his descendants.

And this made me think, why am I?  Why do I associate with and want to belong to groups, clans, or nations?  Have I learned this through experience, or is it innate?  Harking back to Who Do You Think You Are, there was another episode with the famous actor John Hurt. 

He was convinced he was Irish and even moved his home to live in Ireland.  He felt connected to the concept of what it meant to be Irish. But his roots were English, and his descendants came from the east end of London.  He was crestfallen as if his sense of whom he was had evaporated.  In truth, it was funny.

 Similarly, I’ve always believed I was Scottish from early as I can remember.  When playing football or rugby, it never occurred to me to be anything but Kenny Dalglish or Andy Irvine.  My children groaned whenever I talked about the ‘auld’ country when we lived for many years in England.  One of my daughters was even named after the island of Islay.  I wore rugby or sports tops emblazoned with the Scottish thistle when I lived and worked in England.  I was proud to let English people know I was Scottish.  I believed that made me different and special.   The family laughed at their eccentric nationalist Dad, all Tam o’ Shanter and kilt.  

Then DNA sequencing became available to the public.  It wasn’t expensive, and I completed the swab and sent it off for analysis. Two weeks later, a report confirmed that I was very Scottish, as the accompanying report stated my fatherline was Ancient British.  It stated triumphantly:

John Campbell, your YDNA, marker is ANCIENT BRITISH, one of the founding lineages of the British Isles, and you are a direct descendant of the pioneers who walked back to Britain after the end of the last ice age.  Your ancestors have lived here for more than eleven millennia.  I-M284 is rare but certainly indigenous.  In Scotland, it is carried by 4%of all men, a group of around 100,000.  You descend in the male line from aboriginal inhabitants who were the ancestors of the native British, the people who lived before the Angles, the Saxons, and the Vikings.  You are a direct descendant of the Picts, based in what we now know as the highlands of Scotland.

 The Picts were a group of people who lived in Britain north of the Forth–Clyde isthmus.  But before I could get carried away in the science, which stank a wee bit of eugenics, the report confirmed that on my mothersline, like all homo sapiens, I was related to several hundred people who left the horn of Africa after the eruption of mount Toba, an Indonesian volcano 70,000 years ago which nearly ended humankind.   The confirmation of my origin was pleasing, but it must be taken with a pinch of salt.  As we Scots say, ’ We’re ’a Jock Tamson’s bairns.’  

Nonetheless, who we are and who we think we are may be more programmed than we think.  In business, I used the Myers Briggs Personality Test on my teams to explore the dynamics of everyone’s personality to make the team work more effectively.  It was fascinating when I would complete these tests on new teams.  When I explained that it’s empirically proven that there are sixteen types of personality that all humans coalesce around, there was disbelief.  But as we progressed through the exercise, there was that moment of realisation that there is a limited amount of ‘free will.’  So, is who I am preordained?  Not at all; where you live and how you live, and how wealthy you are, have just as much an influence on outcomes.

Similarly, I’m honoured to belong to the Campbell clan on my Dad’s side and the clan Christie, MacLaren, and Ross on my mother’s side.  This makes me proud, but it’s not necessarily a biological link.  Some Campbell enthusiasts believe that there is a DNA link between all Campbells, and of course, there will be links, but not all of us are related to the Duke of Argyll.  It must be remembered that clans fought and battled for land and hegemony.  Often, this meant acquiring other lands, and crofters on the land took the name of the Campbell clan.  It’s unlikely that I can trace my lineage to 1st Lord Duncan Campbell, who died in 1453, like Mathew Pinsent when he discovered he was a relative of William the Conqueror.   However, I’m known for suggesting I have aristocratic links.  When guests at Powdermills B&B discover I’m a Campbell, they ask if I’m related to The Duke of Argyll.  With a deadpan face, I turn and say,’ he’s, my cousin.’  They smile, not knowing if this is a joke or true.  I don’t give them an indication; I might well be.

While searching for my DNA report, completed in 2013, I came across a black and white photo of the Scottish Junior League football team Ormiston Primrose, on which I’ve previously written a blog.  I posted a digital photo a month ago, not knowing the date.  But today, I turned over the original, and to my surprise, the names of the team were written on the back.  And so was the date, 1913, a year before the outbreak of WW1, and 110 years ago.  Two relatives of mine were in the picture, Johnnie Christie and his son Wullie Christie, the ballboy at the front holding the ball.  I couldn’t see any family resemblances, but I couldn’t help thinking it could have been me.  Obsessed with sport and competing to win.  I’ve many similar photos of me in similar team line-ups.  That’s not by chance nor is it learned, or due to environmental factors; it’s in the genes.