Gene Expression

Iceland, Elves & Inbreeding

There’s a critique up of Michael Lewis’ entertaining if somewhat less than illuminating (compared to the piece in The New Yorker) profile of the Icelandic financial meltdown. No surprise that Lewis spun here and there to extract more entertainment out of the straight story, but I have to take objection to a few points:

5. “Icelanders are among the most inbred human beings on earth — geneticists often use them for research.”

Now this is insulting. Icelanders’ DNA shows their roots to be a healthy mix between Nordic Y chromosomes and X chromosomes from the British Isles. The reason genetic-research company deCODE uses Icelandic genes for its research is not because the codes are so homogeneous, but because the population has kept excellent genealogical records dating back thousands of years.

What the author means is that the ancestors were males from Scandinavia and females from the British Isles. One can vary the proportions, but the skew is in the direction suggested above. But even if all the female ancestors of Icelanders were British and all the male ancestors Nordic, only 2/3 of the X chromosomes would derive from the British population. Males carry an X as well. That’s the pedantic point. The more substantive one is the idea that because an ancestral population originally had diverse origins (in this case, at settlement), the descendant population could therefore never be inbred by definition. Actually there is some evidence that Icelanders are a touch inbred, though that just means that they have a low longer term effective population and little gene flow with other groups.

By analogy, consider a set of biracial siblings. If the brothers and sisters started mating and produced inbred offspring, who themselves bred with each other, the resultant population would become progressively more inbred despite their diverse racial origins. That’s what inbreeding does; it cranks down effective population and starts to increase the power of drift so much that it removes a lot of the genetic variation. If human races aren’t that different, well, you aren’t starting from very different places in the race to get inbred, right?

8. The nation has to deal with “elves — in whom some large number of Icelanders, steeped long and thoroughly in their rich folkloric culture, sincerely believe.” Alcoa, an aluminum-smelting multinational with operations outside of Reykjavík, had to “defer to a government expert to scour the enclosed plant site and certify that no elves were on or under it.”

Right. I’ve heard the elf thing mentioned in tired travel articles (normally wedged between paragraphs on the beauty of waterfalls and tips for eating ram testicles), but I personally know no one on this island who believes in elves. Not one. As for Alcoa, their rep believes Lewis is likely referring to a law regarding environmental-impact assessments. The assessment includes an archaeological survey to ensure no important artifacts or ruins are destroyed, and the site’s history is also surveyed to see if it was ever named in any Icelandic folklore. And yes, some of that folklore involves elves. But if you’re going to introduce the notion that some kind of Ministry of Elf Inspection exists within the ranks of the Icelandic government, you might as well also note that we take the Hogwart’s Express to the office every day.

If there are no Icelanders who believe in elves then they’re a rather mischievous people, as I’ve heard several BBC reports over the years interviewing Icelanders with ideas about the “Little People” or whatever they call them. Perhaps they were playing a joke on the correspondent, as that has been known to happen to journalists and anthropologists when they meet isolated peoples. In any case I watched an Icelandic film several years ago which seemed to assume that some rural folk are quite superstitious to the point where one would expect that they believe in elves. Also, there’s survey data which ascertains the proportion of Icelanders who believe in Elves. Unless Icelanders are liars a significantly greater share than 0 believe in elves. This is a serious problem with appealing too much to personal experience. Sometimes when I argue with people offering anecdotes I just make something up to refute their argument, at which point my interlocutor is dumbfounded, and I just admit I made up the anecdote.


  1. #1 Dunc
    March 25, 2009

    Well, I’m Scottish, and nobody really believes in the Loch Ness Monster – but we don’t say that to tourists, survey takers or gullible journalists. Perhaps the elf thing is kind of like a national in-joke? (We do the same with the haggis, and Australians do it with “drop bears”.)

    Also, you should never rely on national media for accurate an unbiased information about them funny furiniers. For example, there’s usually at least one article a year on “the new fashion that’s storming Japan” (such as the famous “sheep as poodles” story, or the seemingly never-ending series of stories stating that high-end custom bondage footware is now high-street fashion) splashed all over the media, which on closer examination turn out to be utter rubbish.

  2. #2 Brandon
    March 25, 2009

    There’s also the problem that for Icelanders elves are a low-commitment object to affirm belief in, being a cultural legacy, and so you have to take into account the likelihood that at least some of the ‘believe in elves’ category may really be little more than the response, “I’m an Icelander, aren’t I?” and the ‘belief’ in elves little more than one of the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” variety. It’s impossible to say how much by simply asking what people believe, because people don’t use the word ‘belief’ univocally.

  3. #3 Alex
    March 25, 2009

    Daniel “dsquared” Davies remarked that the elves thing was no stranger than the London Borough of Camden’s protection of sash windows. I think he’s right, and I suspect the Borough does believe in some sense that the Ancestor Spirit (what else is “heritage” after all?) resides in the sashes.

  4. #4 pconroy
    March 25, 2009

    Yes of course the majority of Icelanders believe in elves, and the majority of Scandanavians believe in trolls, and the majority of Irish believe in Leprechauns… 😉

    “Ask a stupid question and you’ll get s stupid answer”

  5. #5 Julie Stahlhut
    March 25, 2009

    Actually there is some evidence that Icelanders are a touch inbred, though that just means that they have a low longer term effective population and little gene flow with other groups.

    That’s an excellent point, and one too rarely made. Non-biologists are rarely familiar with the term “effective population size”. They also tend to confuse inbreeding with incest, which makes for smarmy and inaccurate reporting. The sad thing is that while a newspaper or magazine article could use this as a teaching moment, few if any ever do.

    Effective population size has a formal mathematical definition, and is a measure of the number of individuals contributing offspring to the next generation. Inbreeding is breeding between biological relatives, and the same term is used for humans and for other species. Incest is sex between closely related people in violation of laws or social conventions.

    In a small and isolated human population, there will be inbreeding (because every couple will share some ancestry if you go back a few generations,) but there will almost certainly be an abhorrence of incest (you’ll be punished or ostracized if you have sex with a close relative.) Even societies that encourage some marriages among relatives have rules about just how close is too close.

  6. #6 pconroy
    March 25, 2009

    Of course Icelanders believe in elves!

    Afterall the Icelandic Tourist Board says so:
    The Iceland Tourist Board however states that more than ten percent of the Icelandic population believes in elves, including singer-songwriter Björk.

    And if you want to find out more about elves, just travel to Iceland… kching!

  7. #7 Steinn Sigurdsson
    March 25, 2009

    Yes, there’s a X bias towards north British Isles population; this is because the male slaves were castrated.
    But the women were all princesses, really, it says so in the stories.

    As for the elves, they don’t care whether you believe in them or not, you just can’t mess with them or they’ll make you pay.

  8. #8 Brian X
    March 25, 2009

    You know, I read that article, and it was interesting, but the constant condescension really, really irked me.

    I’m pretty inclined to agree with the genetics thing though — it’s just a natural consequence of extreme isolation.

  9. #9 KarinJ
    March 25, 2009


    Afterall the Icelandic Tourist Board says so:
    The Iceland Tourist Board however states that more than ten percent of the Icelandic population believes in elves, including singer-songwriter Björk.

    Björk is an elf? That explains a lot…

  10. #10 John Emerson
    March 25, 2009

    Good records not for thousands of years, but hundreds, a fresult of Danish absolutism. And there hasn’t been a lot of immigration since 1000, and mostly from the same areas. I don’t know the numbers on that at all, though.

    Inbreeding is inbreeding, though I suppose it’s worse if the otiginally population was also homogenous. But again, it’s not like Norse, Brits, and Irish are terribly divergent.

    Iceland has a smaller and much more homogenous population than Indianapolis, so it isn’t impossible that they have a shared practice of bullshitting reporters. (They also have a language that no one can read except Icelanders and people who wish they were Icelanders, so the in-joke possibilities are even greater. Who knows what those blond weirdos are saying about us in their prehistoric language.

  11. #11 pconroy
    March 25, 2009


    Well I knew a Finn who settled in Reykjavik, and said that he had been there on vacation and fell in love with the place. He said that he felt completely at home there, and had met a fair number of Finns living there.

    In terms of the Icelandic language – well it’s basically Norse – a few months ago I read a book by autistic-savant Daniel Tammet called, Born on a Blue Day, where among other things, he learns to speak Icelandic in ONE WEEK!!!

  12. #12 deadpost
    March 26, 2009

    “They also tend to confuse inbreeding with incest, which makes for smarmy and inaccurate reporting”

    I’m used to hearing inbreeding only in a scientific context, and incest in a social one but aren’t they often used interchangeably?

    Is incest a specific subset of inbreeding that is socially undesirable or do the marriage partners have to be a certain distance apart in order for it to not be called incest, whereas inbreeding varies by degree?

  13. #13 John Emerson
    March 27, 2009

    Incest is a kind of inbreeding, but it’s a purely legal or religious concept. In China marrying anyone with the same (patrilineal) surname is presumed to be related, so no two Smiths or Johnsons could marry (though people cheat sometimes). Purely fictitious kinship because surnames are assigned almost randomly when non-Chinese sinify. On the other hand, cousins on the mother’s side are allowable wives, or even preferred — whereas in Islam paternal cousins are preferred.

    Clan cultures tend toward inbreeding, though they will also have incest rules against some kinds of inbreeding. If a few small clans marry mostly with one another, the inbreeding gets intense pretty quickly.

    I’ve read of a Pacific island where 15% of the population would be forbidden for any given individual, and incest was punished by death there.

  14. #14 rob
    March 27, 2009

    I don’t believe snipes are real. But if the opportunity to take someone snipe hunting comes up, I’ll sure say and act like I do.

  15. #15 jason
    March 30, 2009

    i have lived in iceland the past 4 and a half years, and iceland has a good proportion of immigrants there. there are alot of polish immigrants, thai, lithuanian, and other european countries. just to name a few.

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