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Radio Review: The Viking Code – BBC Radio 4

17 December 2018
Appeared in BioNews 980

Nearly everyone in modern day Europe is descended from the Vikings: this was the revelation I discovered when listening to a recent episode of BBC Radio 4's 'The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry'.

The series is a fun one, with listeners writing in to the show to ask Drs Rutherford and Fry science-related mysteries they would like the answer to. The question posed in 'The Viking Code' episode was: Is it true that all British people can trace their ancestry to the Vikings and how do ancestry DNA tests actually work?

I enjoyed the overall style of the show, and now have a new appreciation for how genetic testing offered by commercial companies actually works. There was not actually much information on genetic testing and although I appreciate that a half-hour radio show is not long enough to go into the fine details, I thought that more of this subject could have been covered. 

As you would expect of a programme from BBC Radio 4, the show is well informed and the presenters are a pleasure to listen to. Both Dr Adam Rutherford and Dr Hannah Fry who are the show's hosts hold PhDs in their respective fields, and Dr Rutherford is actually a geneticist himself, so the programme and its content are highly credible. Dr Fry is a mathematician, so is able to provide the viewpoint of an interested non-specialist. 

The show starts off by describing how a genetic test – such as those offered by the likes of AncestryDNA – actually works. The overall idea is that you provide a saliva sample, which will contain cells from the inside of your mouth, and DNA can be extracted from these cells. Specific markers are identified within the DNA sample and these are compared to those from other people's DNA. 

One thing I found particularly interesting is that these genetic tests only compare your DNA with that of other living people and therefore the results don't show as much about your ancestry as I first thought. Dr Rutherford uses himself as an example: his test results showed that he was 2 percent Scandinavian, but rather than this meaning his ancestors come from Sweden, as you might expect, it just means that a small portion of his DNA matches that of people who are alive today and living in Scandinavia. It is a small distinction, but one I think the genetic testing companies fail to make.

In the next part of the show the Vikings are discussed, which is the part I found most interesting. It turns out that everyone with European heritage is descended from the Vikings and you do not need a genetic test to confirm this.  We all have so many ancestors that if you look back far enough, everyone is related to some degree and as the Vikings covered all of Europe – right down to North Africa – all European people are descended for them in one way or another. 

I myself thought I had a very boring ancestry. My mother recently did an AncestryDNA test and found out that she was 75 percent East Anglian / Essex – much to our disappointment. But after listening to this radio show, I will tell all my friends with great excitement that I am in fact descended from the Vikings. 

During the show, the hosts speak to two relevant guests, which adds colour and variety to the programme. First, they speak to Dr Janina Ramirez, who is a historian affiliated with the University of Oxford. They then ask a few questions of evolutionary geneticist Professor Mark Thomas from University College London. They are both prominent researchers in their field, so I thought this was a good way to get some of the information across.

Towards the end of the show I did feel as though the hosts were just filling time and must confess I started to switch off. In their defence, I am not a regular Radio 4 listener and so not the target audience.  

I would have liked to have more information on the science behind genetic tests, how they work and what they really show. The subject matter that was covered, however, was very clear and easy to understand. It was interesting for people like me who have some knowledge of the subject area, but would also be easily enjoyed by people with no prior knowledge and was not at all patronising. 

Overall, I would recommend the radio series to anyone curious to find out a bit more about lots of different areas of everyday science. From this show in particular, I learned a few things I did not know before, but I do not think I would urge people to go and listen to the programme.

Although the show is fun, well-produced and clearly well researched,  I do not think this particular episode is particularly life changing and the first half of the show was more worthwhile listening to than the second. 

13 May 2019 - by Dr Sam Sherratt 
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