The kohanim; interview with Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart on the kohanim and genetics - blog by Gurdur


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The kohanim; interview with Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart on the kohanim and genetics
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Posted 28-Mar-2010 at 08:29 PM (20:29) by Gurdur
Updated 27-Nov-2014 at 08:59 AM (08:59) by Gurdur

Well, for the last week I had to fight off a very nasty sinusitis infection, which meant no blog posts at all, but I did get in some work done on the Hub templates for the blogs. However, it means I have a huge backlog of blog and Hub board posts to do, and I can only start doing them slowly. Part of that backlog is a series of videos I took at the DiscWorld Convention in 2008; I promised Unbeliever to put up some vids, and hadn't done it so far, so I will start doing them one by one. A special treat for readers will be a series of vids covering the Church of Om service at that convention.

For a start, below is a snippet taken from a long interview, very kindly granted by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, two incredibly nice and helpful blokes, at the DiscWorld Convention, 2008. This was one of a number of interviews I made at that convention. Since the interview with Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart was quite long, I divided it into segments, and this is one of those segments.

Professor Jack Cohen, who was born in 1933, is at date an Honorary Professor at the Mathematics Institute, University of Warwick, and also a Visiting Professor, Durham Business School. He has long been involved in science fiction, and co-authored "The Science Of DiscWorld" books together with Terry Pratchett and Ian Stewart.

Professor Ian Nicholas Stewart was born in 1945 in England, and is today one of the most worldwide-famous mathematicians, and is currently Professor of Mathematics at the University of Warwick. He has authored many books, and has co-authored along with Terry Pratchett and Jack Cohen the three existing "The Science Of DiscWorld" books.

Here is the snippet of the interview; in this part, Jack Cohen is talking about the kohanim, a historical ritual priestly caste/group within Jews; recent studies on the Y-chromosome could well indicate a common male ancestor for a good many of the kohanim, traditonally claimed to be Aaron. This is known as the "Y-chromosomal Aaron", and in the Bible the common ancestor is identified as Aaron, son of Moses, though of course actual history may well be very different.

The relevant scientific studies are:

Shen, P.; Lavi, T., Kivisild, T., Chou, V., Sengun, D., Gefel, D., Shpirer, I., Woolf, E., Hillel, J., Feldman, M.W., Oefner, P.J. (2004).
"Reconstruction of Patrilineages and Matrilineages of Samaritans and Other Israeli Populations From Y-Chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA Sequence Variation"
Human Mutation 24: 248260.

Skorecki, K.; Selig, S., Blazer, S., Bradman, R., Bradman, N., Waburton, P.J., Ismajlowicz, M., Hammer, M.F. (1997).
"Y chromosomes of Jewish priests"
Nature 385: 32.

Thomas, M.G.; Skorecki, K., Ben-Ami, H., Parfitt, T., Bradman, N., Goldstein, D.B. (1998).
"Origins of Old Testament priests"
Nature 394: 13840.

There is a good deal of mathematical and scientific argument over just how much of the "Y-chromosomal Aaron" effect is actually real, and how much is coincidental; nonetheless, it is a fascinating topic. Here is an article about the initial research.

Here is Jack Cohen speaking on the "Y-chromosomal Aaron"; Jack Cohen is the one sitting at the right-hand side of the video, and the one doing most of the talking in this segment shown below; Ian Stewart is the one sitting on the left-hand side of the video. Video under copyright to me and the Hub.

The three books co-authored by Terry Pratchett, Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart are:

The Science Of DiscWorld

The Science Of DiscWorld II: The Globe

The Science Of DiscWorld: Darwin's Watch

More books by Jack Cohen and more books by Ian Stewart.

In the interview, Jack Cohen also gives a brief mention to the following book: The Evolution Of Human Sexuality, by Donald Symons. As said, the kohanim (cohenim, kohenim, Kohane; Hebrew: כּהן = priest, singular, "cohen"; כּהנִים = plural, "cohanim") were a special priestly caste / group within Jews, who were all supposed to be descended from Aaron through the male (patrilineal) line. Some studies seem to show that indeed a single male ancestor was behind a good many of male kohanim today; kohanim include pretty much anyone Jewish with a surname akin to Cohen, like Cohn, Coen, Kohen, and so on (so, for example, Leonard Cohen must be one of the kohanim).

This is like the other studies showing a similar effect for Genghis Khan, to wit that he must be the male ancestor behind an awful lot of Central Asians today.

Now, in the interview above, when asked about this all, and how he felt about it (since Jack Cohen's name is Cohen, again, he must be of patrilineal descent of Cohens, therefore one of the kohanim), Jack Cohen gave a very interesting sidelight on the mathematics of it all; he pointed out the well-known fact that "it's a wise child that knows its father", i.e. that a lot of children have a different father than supposed, and he points out that given that, then one would expect modern male Cohens to show far less of a single male ancestor effect than is actually the case; or in other words, one would expect much fewer to have a single male ancestor than seems to be the case.

So Jack Cohen then gives an explanation in that interview section above on just how that unfaithfulness factor might be overcome, and thereby why so many kohanim today seem to be descended from a single male ancestor. Rather than spoil the interview, I will leave the rest of the explanation as he gave it in that interview segment above.

I will be posting on my blog soon more excerpts from the long interview with Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, as well as interviews with others at that convention, and the Church of Om service.



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  1. Old Comment
    Tharmas's Avatar
    See this article in Science News about how statistics are mishandled in many scientific studies, and in particular genetics, because scientists themselves don't really understand them.
    Posted 28-Mar-2010 at 08:52 PM (20:52) by Tharmas Tharmas is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Makbawehuh's Avatar
    I find that both enlightening and deeply amusing; thank you.
    Posted 28-Mar-2010 at 10:39 PM (22:39) by Makbawehuh Makbawehuh is offline
  3. Old Comment
    lifelinking's Avatar
    The little exchange at the beginning reminded me of this:

    On New York's Upper West Side lived an assimilated Jew who was a militant atheist. But he sent his son to Trinity School because, despite its denominational roots, it’s a great school and completely secular.

    After a month, the boy comes home and says casually, "By the way Dad, do you know what 'Trinity' means? It means the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost."

    The father can barely control his rage. He seizes his son by the shoulders and declares, "Danny, I’m going to tell you something now and I want you never to forget it. There is only one God. And we don’t believe in Him!"

    'The Jewish Atheist' - from Humanisist Network News 17 January 2007
    Posted 28-Mar-2010 at 11:16 PM (23:16) by lifelinking lifelinking is offline
  4. Old Comment
    Makbawehuh's Avatar
    BAHAHAHAHAHA! That is awesome.
    Posted 29-Mar-2010 at 12:49 AM (00:49) by Makbawehuh Makbawehuh is offline
  5. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar
    Lifelinking, LOL!

    Originally Posted by Tharmas View Comment
    See this article in Science News about how statistics are mishandled in many scientific studies, and in particular genetics, because scientists themselves don't really understand them.
    Many thanks for that link, Tharmas!
    Posted 29-Mar-2010 at 12:59 AM (00:59) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
  6. Old Comment
    Posted 30-Mar-2010 at 11:28 PM (23:28) by 333 333 is offline
  7. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar
    This is rather important, and something I will blog upon sometime in the near future.
    Posted 31-Mar-2010 at 07:22 AM (07:22) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
  8. Old Comment
    ouinon's Avatar
    Originally Posted by article that 333 linked to about the recent ruling against patenting human gene sequences
    In other words, you can’t patent nature and you can’t patent a fundamental idea of science.
    I didn't know that human genes had been patented, and am very glad to hear that the courts appear to be making it illegal now ... but the idea of doing so, and the statement above, reminded me of the Roman Catholic Church selling "indulgences" in the middle ages; ie. people could "pay" the church, a priest or whatever, for certain sins to be forgiven ( "exceptionally" or simply so that could dispense with the lengthy processes of penance otherwise prescribed by the church ), as if god's forgivenness could be doled out for money. It's interesting how often the behaviour and mind-set of those participating in activities "covered" by the titanic social construct which is science resembles that of those participating in activities "belonging" to the equally titanic church of the middle ages.

    Posted 31-Mar-2010 at 11:09 AM (11:09) by ouinon ouinon is offline
  9. Old Comment


    Kohen genetics has been proven biased and does not conform to the scientific method. See for the story of how a group of objective scientists found this out.
    Posted 23-Aug-2010 at 01:13 AM (01:13) by Unregistered
    Updated 20-Jul-2011 at 02:20 PM (14:20) by Gurdur
  10. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar
    Recent update to this six-year-old blog post; see:
    Posted 25-Jul-2016 at 04:00 PM (16:00) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
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