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The Far Right’s milking of progress…

Essay | 10 minute read
What do milk, human civilisation and the notion of white supremacy have in common? A science writer investigates the myth of colonial superiority and its link with land and lactose tolerance

Milk was once regarded innocently in Britain as a given good, a boon – school milk, ‘Drinka Pinta Milka Day’. Growing up, I had no idea that the ability to drink milk in adulthood wasn’t universal. It predominates in north-west Europe where up to 95 per cent of the population can drink milk.

Milk turns out to be much more than just a healthy glug: it has a mighty past, however much nutritional opinion is turning against it. And that past is causing a problem because milk drinking has been taken up by the Far Right as an emblem of white supremacy; a proxy for whiteness, for European descent. The true story of milk is not yet widely known so its misappropriation by American white supremacists, who have been holding public milk-swilling orgies, proclaiming ‘the science is on our side’, means that now is the time to tell it.

What could their claim ‘the science is on our side’ possibly mean? Since the notion of ‘supremacy’ has been mooted, we can start with a question: How, in the nineteenth century, did a small, previously marginal, north-west European country manage to install its queen as Empress of India, the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire? Why didn’t the Mughal Emperor conquer Britain?

This is a deliberate echo of Jared Diamond’s famous question, ‘How did Pizarro come to be there to capture [Atahuallpa], instead of Atahuallpa’s coming to Spain to capture King Charles I?’. The historian Ian Morris, influenced by Diamond, tried to propose an answer in Why the West Rules: For Now, arguing that Britain was the best placed country in Europe to be the first industrial power, citing ‘higher wages, more coal, stronger finance, and arguably more open institutions’ and, having beaten off France and Holland, ‘more colonies, trade, and warships’. But why was Britain in this strong position?

There is a narrative that has emerged from studying our genes that explains Europe’s history, eventually arriving at a point with Britain at the top of the pile. The whole concept of civilisation began with a Big Bang around 10,000 years ago. Before that, archaeologists had charted human progress in terms of micro-refinements in the design of chipped flint tools. What’s so special about the last 10,000 years? It was of course the birth of farming: the cultivation and domestication of crops and the herding and exploitation of animals for meat, burden, and eventually, rather crucially, milk and milk products.

Now scientists can sequence ancient DNA from the last 30,000 years and use this to chart our evolution and our migrations. In 2003 it was discovered that the source of the ability to drink animal milk throughout adulthood derives from a single DNA base mutation (that’s just one substitution in three billion) in the gene controlling the digestion of lactose, the sugar in milk. Interestingly – and damningly for the white supremacists – milk tolerance is also seen in several African populations, typically the Maasai, that practise a dairying culture. Here is a mutation – or mutations, because there are three of them, the two main ones differing from the European one – which suggests very strongly that the ability to digest milk is driven by millennia of dairying. Whoever does this will be able to drink milk. Race does not come into it.

The ability to digest milk began to spread slowly through dairying populations from a point originally dated to around 7,500 years ago. This process is currently very incomplete across the globe, ranging from less than 10 per cent in East Asia, around 30 per cent in northern India and southern Europe, rising in an arc from the south-east to the north-east to over 90 per cent in Britain, Holland and Scandinavia.

Photo by Jagoda Kondratiuk/Unsplash

The cultural practices of cattle rearing and milk drinking co-evolved with the milk tolerance gene. The milk culture did not begin with someone who had the mutation wandering out to look for a cow to milk. Starting from a single individual, the mutation spread by enabling more offspring to survive; it then took several thousand years to reach an appreciable extent in the population.

Recent evidence, as more and more samples of ancient DNA are sequenced, shows that the spread of the milk tolerance gene happened over only 5,000 years, not 7,500 as previously thought; it is the fastest spreading human mutation so far known. It is associated with a dominant migratory culture, originating in the Steppe grasslands adjoining the shores of the Black and Caspian seas, a region now located in Russia. These people, known as the Yamnaya, developed a culture, initially nomadic, which made use of domesticated horses and wheeled wagons that gave them great mobility. They began to drink the milk of their animals, horses as well as cattle and goats. Eventually, they had war chariots.

In the world of 5,000 years ago, in Europe, to be able to drink milk conferred a huge advantage. You could keep animals alive during hard winters and drink their milk instead of slaughtering them. As the pioneers moved north and westward very rapidly, the offspring of milk drinkers had a higher survival rate than the others.

Clearing the European forests, pasturing the animals and growing crops was a huge task, but in the new warm climate, as Europe opened up after the last ice age, this way of farming become extremely successful. Much more so than in the lands of the origin of farming in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean lands, which were much hotter and in parts arid. Greece produced the first great Western culture, but it was always poor agriculturally.

The new genomic evidence makes it almost certain that the Yamnaya migrations were responsible for the spread of the Indo-European languages – now spoken by half the world’s peoples – which comprise nearly all the European languages, Iranian languages such as Farsi, and the main northern Indian languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati and Marathi.

The origin of the Indo-European languages has been one of the world’s great mysteries ever since the English civil servant Sir William Jones reported in 1786 that the ancient Indian language Sanskrit showed a clear affinity to Latin and ancient Greek. A proto-language has been constructed from which all the others can be derived. Wherever the Yamnaya genes are found, milk drinking and Indo-European language are there too.

In the case of Britain, around 4,500 years ago, post-Stonehenge, 90 per cent of the population was replaced by migrants, the Bell Beaker culture, who were the westernmost wave of the Yamnaya migrations. So if the Yamnaya brought milk drinking and their language to both India and Britain, why was it Britain that claimed India as part of its empire? Why didn’t the Mughal Emperor conquer Britain?

The answer is, of course, geography. The milk gene spread through a pioneering northern European population following the retreating ice. The milk drinkers did better at the ever-shifting frontier than the others, so came to dominate the population. As the European population grew and the forests receded before the tide of cattle pastured in meadows (a potted history of 20,000 years in Europe would run: ice, forest, cattle pasture), another advantage began to emerge over Mediterranean and Asian civilisations. They were essentially landlocked cultures: the Mediterranean is small pond, easy to navigate – why risk going further?

But from the late fifteenth century, Europe’s growing population began to look to its coasts and beyond. The discovery of the Americas began from Spain and Portugal, so the arc of civilisation hadn’t at this time moved far from Rome. But as time went on, the countries with a greater extent of western coastline became dominant. Britain, being the only large-ish western island in Europe, inevitably became a major player in the colonisations that followed the voyages of discovery and plunder. The fact that Britain won the battle for European colonisation of America was vital in establishing a large transatlantic English-speaking trading culture that cemented Britain’s dominance (until of course its American offshoot grew to eclipse it).

Size –  population size – matters. It is crucial in fostering innovation in society. Connections facilitate ideas. When humans first began to organise themselves into settlements, towns and cities, they became members of networks, which exposed them to new ideas and allowed them to spread their own discoveries. Before this happened, a novel idea proposed by one person could well die with them, as there was only a limited network with which to share it. Great ideas arise in crowds.

Britain’s population growth in the eighteenth century far outstripped that of France. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain, once a very poor relation of France, had become its equal. Between 1750 and 1900 the British population grew sixfold whereas that of France rose by only 56 per cent. The French were very aware of the importance the British attached to cattle, hence the tag ‘les Rosbifs’. It would not have occurred to them that the Brits’ secret weapon was not the meat of the animal but the milk.

‘Wellington’s March from Quatre Bras to Waterloo’, 1815 (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

The answer we have been leading up to is: milk plus geography adds up to a powerful engine of growth – ‘milk’ standing for the pastoral culture that started in the steppes and swept through Europe, leaving its genes as the dominant strand in today’s populations and fuelling dramatic population growth; and geography meaning all the advantages that accrue to an island whose population is growing fast and seeking new frontiers. And being on the western tip of Europe, that frontier had to be yet further west. In other words, the supremacy of Europe and especially Britain was a matter of geographical and ecological good fortune.

No such frontier imperative existed in India. The Industrial Revolution took place in a highly populated Britain – which needed coal to replace depleted forests, and hence needed the steam engine to flush water out from deep, flooded mines – rather than the India that had invented iron smelting over 3,000 years earlier. India had quite a package: the milk gene, the Indo-European languages; but something was missing: the geography was not favourable.

In the globalised world today, those particular forms of geography and ecology count for little. It took little over a century from Victoria being proclaimed ‘Empress of India’ in 1877 for the tables to be turned. In 2007 India’s Tata Steel bought the former commanding height of the British economy, British Steel. Not quite a perfect reversal of roles but heavily symbolic nonetheless.

Myths about the origin of cultures and nations have always powered terrible conflicts. The new knowledge from genomics will in the foreseeable future give us the true story of human civilisation from prehistory until now. But will this story be accepted universally? It should be, because you cannot find an identity by looking back thousands of years and distorting what you find.

Homer (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The Yamnaya were a powerful founding force in the history of Eurasia –  half the world’s people speak a language originally spread by them – but we wouldn’t like them if we could meet them. You can see an echo of their character in the first European and Indian literatures: Homer and the Indian Vedas. Theirs was a brutal world of warlordism, rape and pillage. Of course there is humanity in Homer as well, but his is not a society any of us would wish to live in. The best things the Yamnaya bequeathed to us are those wonderful languages; their brutality is not to be celebrated or imitated.

The story of the evolution of civilisation over the last 5,000 years should give no comfort to white racists – quite the reverse. The truth is that the ending of the last ice age opened up such a bonanza for western Europe that its peoples would have been very stupid not to have exploited it to the full. The ability to drink milk and Western domination are linked but only in the sense that the ending of the ice age cast northern Europe as the new Eden where the living was easy (relatively, that is). Milk drinking is a badge, not of superiority, but of genetic and ecological luck.

All the benefits nature once conferred upon northern Europe (and especially Britain) have run out. In a globalised world the advantage has shifted to Asia. Those who hold up milk as a litmus test for who should and who should not be allowed to live in Europe and America are Canutes of the lactic realm, clinging to a wave of the past to assuage their sense of being submerged by a new, potentially dominant, one: by the Chinese, for example, most of whom cannot drink milk at all.