American Genes Don’t Exist

American Genes Don’t Exist

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted November 4, 2009 in DNA Around the World, DNA in General

image Congratulations to Meb Keflezighi of Eritrean descent, who won the New York City Marathon last Sunday and was the first American to do so since 1982!

Why did I mention that he was born in Eritrea? Because critics say that an immigrant like Keflezighi who moved to the U.S. at age 12 isn’t a legitimate American.

A post on said:

Give us all a break. It’s just another African marathon winner.

How about making that African-American?

Silly me. I thought that naturalized American citizens equal American citizens at birth with the same rights and privileges (with the exception of getting to be the President of the United States). Leaving that debate aside, however, the belief that East Africans are genetically endowed for marathon running has also clouded Keflezighi’s celebration.

The success of distance runners from Kenya and Ethiopia has fostered a lore of East Africans as genetically gifted, unbeatable, dominant because of their biology. Scientists have looked for — but not found — genes specific to East Africans that could account for their distance ability, said John Hoberman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies race and sports.

Truly American? Debate Dogs a Triumph in the Marathon –

No doubt Keflezighi has genes which enhance his physiological capabilities for endurance and other traits found in winning marathoners. This does not mean that Keflezighi is any more or less American than other non-East African runners who have the same genes.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “nationality” in two parts:


noun (pl. nationalities) 1 the status of belonging to a particular nation. 2 an ethnic group forming a part of one or more political nations.

Even though ethnic groups are mentioned, the U.S. is clearly a country of many ethnic groups so genes should not be part of the debate when discussing whether someone is American or not.

Quite frankly, I’m not even sure what makes a person American and I don’t think anyone else does either. I hold an American passport and spent the years between ages 6 and 26 in the U.S. I’ve lived in six different countries in the past 10 years and as a result, my national identity is slightly muddled. My son is even more confused. He holds an American passport as well but has never lived in the U.S although he’s lived in four different countries in his seven years. He was born in Japan so some days he says that he’s Japanese and now that he lives in Singapore, he sometimes says he’s Singaporean. I’m sure some people would say he’s not American at all.

It might be simpler to say we’re global citizens with ties to more than one country. Truth be told, I’m proud to say I’m Chinese-American with the accent to prove it.

Edited to add this video of Meb Keflezighi on David Letterman:



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Comment by Corrine

Great post. I have in the past wished that I could just be identified as a global citizen, as well!

Boundaries keep changing, whether political or not—what are the implications for patriotism? On the other hand, shouldn’t we care about all of humanity regardless of nationality?

Just random thoughts from another “transplant.”

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