UCL Division of Biosciences


BritainsDNA Saga

BritainsDNA uses press releases and interviews to make claims that appear to be scientific but have little if any support. As far as we are aware, the claims discussed below have not been subject to the scientific process of peer review, for example through publication in a scientific journal. 

In most cases it seems unlikely that they could be published in a reputable journal because the claims have little basis: science is about testing theories against competing alternatives; most of the claims described here appear to be story-telling based on only a loose connection with the evidence.  They do not seem intended as contributions to knowledge but are only media promotions of BritainsDNA.

This is disappointing because it undermines public understanding of science, will eventually feed public mistrust of science, and distract attention from serious research into understanding human history from genetic and other evidence.  It is even more disappointing to note that the Chief Scientific Officer of BritainsDNA is a scientist at Edinburgh University who should appreciate the evidence required to support such claims. 

Some Problematic Press Coverage

News coverage of the BritainsDNA saga

PR attack on the BBC

The three Moffat-Naughtie interviews

Britain's DNA Press Releases

Complaints to the BBC

The Moffat/BritainsDNA saga timeline

Some Problematic Press Coverage

There is so much to choose from here, we have made a selection, and without much comment - we hope from all of the above that the problems with the quotes we have selected will be evident.  Since these are press reports we can't be sure if the confusion and errors came from BritainsDNA or were due to misunderstandings by the journalists - but in most cases the source of the problem is clear.

The Scotsman, 30 November 2011

"Remarkably it turned out that Naughtie's DNA marker was very similar to mine. But he is not a Borderer and hails from Banffshire. How did that work? It was in fact a near-perfect example of how history and genetics can inform each other. Like mine, his ancestors came from Southern Denmark and settled in the Borders. Macbeth became King of Scotland in 1040. King of Moray since 1032, he and his dynasty presented a real and continuing threat to that of Malcolm Canmore. His son, David I, came to the throne in 1124 and acted quickly to contain the restless north. Having held extensive lands in the Borders, he organised transplantations of loyal noblemen and their retainers to Moray. One of these groups almost certainly included Jim's ancestors."

The reader should wonder what role DNA could have in this story.

The Guardian, 14 April 2012

"DNA project reveals Tom Conti's Napoleonic blood and rich roots of Scotland's genetic legacy".

BritainsDNA often test celebrities, presumably seeking endorsements for their "project". It is not clear if the celebrities realise that this "project" is a commercial enterprise and that they are being used to provide media promotions.

In this particular case the Guardian's Science Editor Robin McKie had his DNA tested by BritainsDNA and he returned the favour by writing an article to promote the company, focusing on the "remarkable claim" that the actor Tom Conti is related to Napoleon: "According to Moffat, Conti's DNA marker reveals his male lineage is Saracen in origin. His ancestors settled in Italy around the 10th century before one of them, Giovanni Buonaparte, settled in Corsica and founded the family branch that produced Napoleon… He [Conti] is clearly a close relative of Napoleon. Only DNA could have told that story." 

The "marker" in question is M34, the Y-chromosome marker that defines a sub-branch of haplogroup E known as E1b1b1b2a1 or E-M34 for short. A scientific paper has indeed been published purporting to show that Napoleon's Y-chromosome belongs to the E-M34 lineage. E-M34 is found today in Ethiopia, the Near East and in Europe but it dates back several thousand years. Conti and Napoleon are therefore not "close relatives". They merely share a Y-chromosome lineage in common with millions of other men. Saracen is the nickname that BritainsDNA give to E-M34 but their nicknames have no scientific basis and we cannot tell where E-M34 originated.

Moffat went on to tell the reporter that "Ancestors of the Bonaparte clan are rare in Britain". This is indeed true. It would in fact be quite astonishing to find any Bonaparte ancestors alive and well in Britain or in any other country - they would all have been dead and buried many years ago!

The Telegraph, 29 June 2012

"Scottish lecturer found to be 'grandfather of everyone in Britain'. A retired lecturer who took a DNA test to find out where his ancestors came from has been found to be directly descended from the first woman on earth, who lived 190,000 years ago."

There's just so much nonsense here it is difficult to know where to begin unpicking the errors.  Let's start with this: there's no such thing as the first woman on earth, every woman has a mother, and going back through the generations nobody can say at what point these maternal ancestors ceased to be women and were instead females of some pre-human species.

Southern Reporter, 9 July 2012

Mr Moffat explained: "Michael's Y DNA line from his father is from the Niger-Congo lineage which is most common in Cameroon, as well as across the rest of West Africa.  "His mum's line is Takruri, which is also West African - so yes, absolutely, Michael is descended from slaves." 

The conclusion doesn't follow from the premises, and the premises are highly doubtful.

Daily Record, 6 October 2012

A collection of "unexpected" results from the ScotlandsDNA "project".

A retired Scottish woman Myra Craig is told by ScotlandsDNA that she has "the Yenesei DNA marker, which can be traced to Siberia". John Bishop, a retired headteacher, is told that he has the "Pretani DNA marker, who have been native to Great Britain for about 9000 years".

These claims are based upon the imaginative and unscientific nicknames that ScotlandsDNA ascribes to the Y-chromosome DNA and mitochondrial DNA haplogroups. "Yenesei" is their name for mtDNA haplogroup U4 and "Pretani" is their name for the Y-DNA haplogroup R1b-L21. We cannot infer the origins of these haplogroups by testing the DNA of living people.

Daily Mail, 18 February 2014

"I am Spartacus's cousin".

David Sykes, a retired policeman, had his Y-chromosome DNA tested with ScotlandsDNA and was told "it reveals Thracian ancestry, the same tribe as the famous freedom fighter Spartacus". This story appears to have been provided by David Sykes rather than ScotlandsDNA but demonstrates how the company's haplogroup stories mislead the consumer.

The claim to Thracian ancestry appears to be based on the Thracian label that ScotlandsDNA assigns to haplogroup I2c, which is defined by the SNP marker L597/S333. It is of course not possible to infer the geographical origin of this Y-chromosome marker based purely on DNA samples provided by living males, let alone associate it with a distant historical figure.

Daily Mail, 19 February 2014

"A powerful new DNA testing technique has revealed the Scottish comedian is actually descended from a combination of Middle Eastern ancestors and Irish royalty."

An astute Daily Mail reader sums up the story nicely in a comment on their website: "What a stupid article... man has DNA test and discovers he has DISTANT genes from another part of the world....?....... I'm speechless at the banality of the obvious in this piece."

The finding of Middle Eastern ancestry is based on an analysis of autosomal DNA markers, but there is nothing unique about Rory Bremner's DNA. if you go back 500 or more years everyone will share markers with people from the Middle East, and indeed with just about every other population (see Ralph and Coop 2013).

The claim that Rory Bremner is descended in the direct male line from Niall of the Nine Hostages, the fifth-century High King of Ireland, is based on the 2006 paper by Moore, McEvoy, Cape et al which found a prolific Y-chromosome signature that was particularly prevalent on the north-western coast of Ireland. However, the study used a very small sample size and was based on a limited number of Y-STRs.

The date of the M222 SNP that defines this branch is the subject of debate but is now thought to predate Niall of the Nine Hostages. See our page on Dubious commercial claims for a more detailed critique of the Niall research.

It turns out that Rory Bremner is an old friend of Alistair Moffat's and supported his candidacy as Rector of St Andrew's University.

Daily Mail, 10 March 2014

"Almost one million Britons alive today are of Viking descent, which means one in 33 men can claim to be direct descendants of the Vikings."

Yet another PR stunt. The claim is based on a study of Y-chromosome DNA and the false assumption that "six DNA patterns" [haplogroups] are "associated with the Norse Vikings".   Pretty much all UK men are descended from Vikings -- and the same for UK women.

Scottish Daily Record, 5 July 2014

"A DNA expert has made the bold claim that ginger hair gene could die out if Scotland's climate improves."

This nonsensical story seemingly emanated from the Scottish Daily Record but was repeated without question by a number of national and international newspapers including The Independent, the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Huffington Post. The DNA expert making these claims was Dr [sic] Alistair Moffat, the Managing Director of BritainsDNA, who, as far as we are aware, does not have a PhD in any subject and has no qualifications in genetics.

Most unusually the story included a quote from "another scientist, who asked not to be named because of the theoretical nature of the work". The story has been nicely debunked by a number of commenters:

Relax, redheads. You're not about to die out by Adam Rutherford, The Guardian

No, of course climate change won't make redheads go extinct by John Upton writing for the Grist

No, climate change is not driving redheads to extinction by Gail Sullivan, The Washington Post

Redheads are here to stay despite what you may have heard Passnote no, 3347 in The Guardian

No, Redheads are not in danger of going extinct by Tom Phillips, BuzzFeed

Scottish Herald, 24 November 2014

"The discovery of shared ancestral ties between men in Scotland and Wales is at the centre of a new theory that this one per cent of Welsh men are direct descendents of a small band of ancient Scottish aristocrats, who fled the Old Welsh-speaking kingdom of Strathclyde in the ninth century to escape a Viking invasion."

This creative piece of storytelling requires little comment but one wonders why a newspaper should have seen fit to publish fiction in the disguise of news.

News coverage of the BritainsDNA saga

PR attack on the BBC

The scale of the BritainsDNA PR onslaught on the BBC can be seen in this list of interviews and TV coverage, which may not be exhaustive.  These, together with extensive website coverage, have little basis in science or any other aspect of public interest.  If you want to get a taster of the nonsense promoted by the BBC on behalf of BritainsDNA, see its online story about Scottish people supposedly having "extraordinary DNA"

Yet again Razib Khan in Discover Magazine does some debunking, but even he cannot cover it all.  The BBC gullibly reports that Tom Conti is related to Napoleon Bonaparte - we all are. Tom shares a genetic marker with Napoleon; we all share many genetic markers with Napoleon, and presumably very many people share that particular marker, which is implausibly proclaimed to be "Saracen in origin".

There is more laughable nonsense about the Tuareg ancestry of many Scots, and about the travels of Fred MacAulay's slave ancestors (see next paragraph).  Are the BBC editors simply naive, or is it worse than naivety? The item is introduced with "The Scotland's DNA project, led by Edinburgh University's Dr Jim Wilson," and "historian Alistair Moffat, the current rector of St Andrews University". In common with almost all of the BBC's extensive coverage of BritainsDNA, this article fails to inform the public that it is a for-profit business, and it fails to invite comment from independent experts.

The interview with Fred MacAulay on BBC Radio Scotland is among the silliest: he was told that his Y-chromosome DNA "put him in south-west Ireland as part of the descent of Irish kings who were captured by Vikings and then sold in the slave market taking him up to the Hebrides". 

But the three interviews of Moffat by his close friend James Naughtie are at least as bad because they are all fatuous, they appeared on a high-profile news programme, and the close connection between the two men was never revealed.  As usual, no mention was made of the for-profit business, and no independent expert was asked to comment on the extraordinary claims. 

Could the free publicity and protection from critical comment that was afforded BritainsDNA by the BBC be due to friends in the corporation?

The BBC made matters worse by a series of very poor responses to serious complaints by well-qualified experts relating to a number of different programmes, although eventually a complaint was upheld by the Editorial Complaints Unit.

Nevertheless, the BBC's promotion of BritainsDNA continues, and on the very same day news broke that the complaint had been upheld a further interview with Alistair Moffat was broadcast on BBC local radio with misleading content about "Viking DNA". See this blog post by Debbie Kennett.

Question: The BBC has over the years made some bad programmes about what can be inferred from genetics about human history.  The public loves stories about our past, which seems to make programme makers incapable of sticking to the facts.  The truth is actually very interesting and much progress is being made - why can't the BBC make a proper doco on human genetic history, one for people who want to know the truth (with no celebrities, no nonsense about individual journeys, and no covert business promotion)?

The three Moffat-Naughtie interviews

Naughty Moffat

Naughty Jim

Above is the interview of Alistair Moffat (managing director of BritainsDNA) on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on the 9th July 2012 by Jim Naughtie. It is also available from the BBC online.

Question: Is this the most untruths in 4 minutes of "factual" BBC programming ever?

This was not the first time that Jim Naughtie had invited his friend onto the Today programme to promote his business. Moffat appeared on Today on 2/3/11 to discuss the DNA test that he'd arranged for Naughtie through Ethnoancestry, which was later absorbed into ScotlandsDNA/BritainsDNA.  Moffat was invited back on 1/6/11 to discuss Jim Naughtie's DNA test results, and was given the opportunity to "remind" viewers of the ScotlandsDNA website.

Alistair Moffat's interview with James Naughtie on 2nd March 2011

Alistair Moffat's interview with James Naughtie on 1st June 2011

Other links between Moffat and Naughtie

It turns out that the two are old friends. Jim Naughtie, as Chancellor of the University of Stirling, invited Alistair Moffat to serve as Chancellor's Assessor on Stirling's University Court. In 2012, "Britain's Last Frontier" was published: Moffat was the principal author but Naughtie wrote a substantial introduction and his name was displayed prominently on the cover.

The two men appeared together in promotions for their book, at book festivals and similar events.  From the publishers pre-publication promotion: "This is the record of a trip made by best-selling author Alistair Moffat and veteran journalist and broadcaster James Naughtie in which they walk the Line [across Scotland] ... "

Below is a video of Jim Naughtie endorsing Moffat as a candidate for Rector of St Andrews, also available on YouTube

YouTube Widget Placeholderhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1mID06KTCM

Britain's DNA Press Releases

February 2013 Eddie Izzard's genetic past

This refers to the BBC's two hours of television promotion for the stories that BritainsDNA sells to the public (see under Feb 19 & 20 in the timeline page, and in particular this blog).  The press release states "... and skilled geneticists can locate a marker's origin and date its creation." They can't - this is skilled hype more than skilled genetics.  Plausible guesses may be possible, but the uncertainty is considerable and difficult to assess. 

Also "By looking at its frequency in modern populations, they can also track the movement of a marker across the face of the Earth."  False again.  With careful statistical modelling inferences are possible from many genome-wide markers, but even these will be imprecise; the TV programmes only referred to markers representing a small fraction of the genome (Y and mtDNA), and the inferences possible from them about human history are very limited. 

The press release speaks of "Working with scientists at the University of Edinburgh and BritainsDNA ..." but the University should be worried about its name being used apparently to lend credence to implausible claims.

BritainsDNA made extensive attempts to cash in on the amazing promotional opportunity offered to them by the BBC, including a website, and both a promotional tweet and a Facebook post by Eddie Izzard himself, directing followers to the BritainsDNA website.

February 2013 Britain's DNA finds the lost legions

The title pretty much indicates the standard of the content.  "Finding the lost legions" amounts to a speculative guess at how many UK men might have a Y-chromosome introduced into Great Britain by Roman soldiers. See the blog by Debbie Kennett.  Pretty much all white British people are descended from Roman soldiers and probably many South Asians are as well.

March 2013 The Picts are alive

"Who are the Picts? ScotlandsDNA at last finds an answer".  But they don't of course, another example of imaginative hype and few relevant facts.  They find a Y-chromosome DNA variant that is more common in Scotland than in England or Ireland.  They claim "A recently discovered DNA marker suggests that 10% of Scottish men are directly descended from the Picts" but of course it tells us nothing about Scottish history and certainly not that ".. in fact the Picts are alive, well and living amongst us!".  There is a good discussion of the claim on DNA-eXplained.

June 2013 Genocide in Ireland

A nice comment by John Grenham on the Irish Times website says everything.

June 2013 Prince William's Indian Ancestry

This amounts to a claim that Prince William's great-great-great-great-great-grandmother was in fact Indian whereas historical evidence had pointed to her being an Indian resident but of Armenian ethnic origin.  Such a distant relative is expected to have contributed a tiny fraction of Prince William's DNA,  so why we should care that she is Indian and not Armenian is unclear.  More puzzling is that BritainsDNA don't seem to have provided any evidence that she wasn't Armenian. 

The story was "broken" by The Times, who also gave readers a "special offer" to purchase BritainsDNA products - the commercial promotion may provide an explanation for this non-story taking up the front page of The Times. See the blogs by Debbie Kennett, by Roy Greenslade in The Guardian and by Razib Khan in Discover Magazine.

August 2013 Red-Head Project

This press release actually does have some scientific content, and possibly could be published in a scientific journal.  The major difference is that it relates to facts about the current population of Britain and Ireland, rather than fanciful claims about the past, and in contrast to the vagueness of preceding press releases, this one includes a range of relevant facts: a sample size, the names of the genetic variants, and a map showing empirical frequencies of red-hair genes in different regions. 

It's always possible to ask for more: they discuss very similar relative frequencies among Ireland, Scotland and Wales without sample sizes, so no way to assess if the small differences are significant.  Also the carrier numbers seem inconsistent with the phenotypic counts under a fully-penetrant recessive model and that calls out for an explanation.

February 2014 Royal Scotland, Royal Stewart

This press release relates to a study which demonstrates a good use of Y-chromosome DNA testing in combination with genealogical records. The story was covered by the Daily Telegraph. As with all BritainsDNA press releases, the problem is that the research has not been published in a genealogical or scientific journal, the press release provides only scant details and so the claims cannot be independently verified.

The press release claims that "50% of all men who have the surname of Stewart or Stuart are the direct descendants of Scotland's longlasting royal dynasty" but this statistic is based only on BritainsDNA customers, who may not be representative and the sample sizes are not revealed.