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Works in Progress

A glimpse at ongoing faculty research

Are You Part Neanderthal?

Depending on your ancestry, there might be a little bit of Neanderthal in you. About 2 percent, actually. That’s the percentage of Neanderthal DNA that geneticists estimate non-African individuals possess, due to ancient interbreeding.

There was a time—about 40,000 years ago—that Neanderthals and our human ancestors coexisted. Neanderthals died out, but they had interbred with humans, transferring a healthy dose of their DNA. (This archaic genetic mingling applies only to those with non-African heritage because Neanderthals and humans did not coexist in Africa.)

Martin Shields/Science Source/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Rajiv McCoy, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology, says research has shown that possessing a Neanderthal copy of certain genes has been associated with variation in traits such as height or with the chance of getting certain diseases, such as schizophrenia. “These effects tend to be small overall,” says McCoy, “but they’re robust and significant.”

McCoy explores the molecular mechanisms that cause these associations to occur. He has looked at how genetic sequences inherited from Neanderthals might be influencing gene expression—the process by which information stored in our DNA is converted into instructions for making proteins or other molecules.

In a recent study, McCoy and his colleagues used data collected from tissue samples to determine whether a person had inherited a Neanderthal gene and a modern human version of the same gene (one from the mother and one from the father). Theythen compared the gene expression levels between the two copies of that gene. What they found was that in about a quarter of the genes they tested, there indeed was a difference—depending on the specific gene—in expression levels between the Neanderthal copy of the gene and the modern human copy of the gene. This observation informs us about the mechanisms of gene regulation that caused traits to diverge during human evolution.

A related line of research, which McCoy says would not have been possible just five years ago, involves searching for larger structural differences between the genomes of modern humans and Neanderthals. These include thousands of base pair stretches of inserted, deleted, or rearranged DNA sequences. “Due to technological advances, we’re able to see tons of structural variations [at the molecular level],” he says. McCoy believes that the new technology will reveal more clues about our genetic relationship to our Neanderthal cousins.

Tracking Down Lost Relics

In the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204), European crusaders returned home not only with stories of battle and conquest but also with precious religious relics from the Middle East and Byzantium. These were objects as seemingly mundane as stones from Jerusalem, vials of water from the Jordan River, or grains of sand from the Holy Land. But there were also hundreds of more significant objects, such as nails and wood fragments believed to be from the True Cross, upon which Jesus Christ was crucified.

How these relics shaped religious practice and Christian ontology in Europe, and primarily in France, is the subject of an ongoing book project by Anne E. Lester, the John W. Baldwin and Jenny Jochens Associate Professor of Medieval History. The book sprung from research she had conducted on the lives of medieval Cistercian nuns in northern France. “I kept running into these references of these really opulent reliquaries that housed these relics,” she says. “And I thought, ‘What were these things doing in these little monastic communities?’ These were not communities that were patronized by the king of France. I wanted to figure that out.”

Lester has spent months visiting museums and poring over 13th-century archives in France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.

It was mainly chaplains and clerics accompanying the crusaders who brought these objects back to Europe. They would often give the best of them—bones supposedly from John the Baptist’s face, for instance (still on display at France’s Amiens Cathedral)—to bishops or other church officials. But they would return to their hometowns with other relics to be displayed in the local church or chapel.

What surprised Lester was how widespread the dissemination of relics was. “It’s not just that they were only in cathedrals, they were part of the devotional lives of a lot of people down to the smallest communities,” she says.

Lester estimates that roughly 10 percent of these medieval relics still remain in European churches and museums. Most of them were confiscated and destroyed during the French Revolution, since the wealth embodied by the reliquaries was exactly what the revolutionaries were revolting against. Fortunately, they recorded the details of what they did, which Lester found particularly helpful for her research.

Brexit and the White Working Class

In the lead-up to England’s historic vote to leave the European Union, Robbie Shilliam, then working in the U.K. and now a professor of political science at the Krieger School, noticed a peculiar pattern. It appeared to him that much of the political focus and media attention surrounding the Brexit debate dealt with the “white working class,” and how globalism and misguided policies had done them wrong. No one was talking about the black working class or the Muslim working class or any other minority group.

“Before the financial crisis of 2008, the political vernacular in Parliament and in the media wasn’t really about class,” says Shilliam. “But this moral claim on the deserving nature of the white working class, which had been left behind and forgotten, was prominent in the debate over Brexit.”

Shilliam, whose research addresses the political and intellectual complicities of colonialism and race in the global order, wanted to place the Brexit vote into a broader historic context. His book, Race and the Undeserving Poor, is the result. The book traces a long swath of British history from the abolition of slavery and poor laws (1780s to 1830s) to eugenics and national insurance (1840s to 1910s) to social conservatism, workfare, and the emergence of the white “underclass” (1970s to 2000s).

Shilliam notes that throughout history, it has been Britain’s elites who have worked to create and maintain the deserving and undeserving labels in order to preserve the economic status quo, usually in response to a crisis. Most recently, this crisis was the global recession and the attempt to manage its effects through austerity policies. “There is a remarkable stickiness to the propensity to racialize the deserving and undeserving poor through all these different eras,” says Shilliam.

Shilliam never thought his native country would still be debating Brexit in the spring of 2019. “Maybe I’ll be proved entirely right or get egg on my face,” he jokes. “Actually, I don’t make any predictions in the book. It’s really just a resource for people to think a bit more historically and self-reflectively about what social justice might look like in a post-Brexit and post-colonial era.”