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"Jefferson fathered slave’s last child"--journal article raises a question of credibility

March 19, 1999: An editorial in Nature (1) on the public debate (2) arising in the wake of a televised warning about genetically modified foods asserts that “The media need a better understanding of the difference in credibility between published and unpublished “scientific” data.” Perhaps so, but it would be a mistake to think that Nature or any other scholarly journal has a sure-fire method of verifying “scientific” data or testing the validity of inferences that may be drawn from them.

To anyone who might be inclined to think otherwise, the article “Jefferson fathered slave’s last child,” which appeared in the November 5, 1998 issue of Nature (3), is worth examining. Authored by historian Eugene A. Foster and others, the article purports to validate the claim contained in its title by the results of an analysis of DNA from various male-line descendants of, among others, Thomas Jefferson’s paternal uncle Field Jefferson and Eston Hemings Jefferson, the last son of Jefferson's slave, Sally Hemings.

By way of summation, the paper states: “The simplest and most probable explanation for our molecular findings are (sic) that Thomas Jefferson... was the father of Eston Hemings Jefferson” (3). And in words comforting to the scandal-plagued Clinton Administration, a commentary on the paper in the same issue of Nature, concludes: “Jefferson is, with Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, one of America’s secular saints... Now, with impeccable timing, Jefferson reappears to remind us of a truth that should be self evident. Our heroes--especially presidents--are not gods or saints, but flesh-and-blood humans, with all of the frailties and imperfections that this entails” (4).

The Foster paper was an immediate hit with the American media. U.S. News and World Report made it the topic for its November 9 cover story, which stated that it “removes any shadow of doubt that Thomas Jefferson sired at least one son by Sally Hemings” (5). In a similar vein, a Washington Post editorial stated that “Genetic testing shows that Thomas Jefferson almost certainly fathered a child with one of his slaves...” (5), while according to a New York Times editorial, the study offers “compelling new evidence” of Jefferson’s paternity (5).

In truth, however, the study proves very little. As Gary Davis of the Evanston Hospital commented in a letter to Nature (6), “any male ancestor in Thomas Jefferson’s line, white or black, could have fathered Eston Hemings. Plantations were inbred communities, and the mixing of racial types was probably common. As slave families were passed as property to the owner’s offspring along with land and other property, it is possible that Thomas Jefferson’s father, grandfather or paternal uncles fathered a male slave whose line later impregnated another slave, in this case Sally Hemings.”

And that does not exhaust the possibilities. As Samuel Francis wrote in the New American “There seems to be little doubt that Thomas did share the distinctive Y chromosome found in the present-day descendants of his uncle, but so did the uncle and all his descendants down to the present day. So did Thomas Jefferson’s brother Randolph, as well Randolph’s six known sons. How are we to know that Field Jefferson himself, or one of his sons (or, for all we know, illegitimate sons as well), or one of their descendants, or Randolph, or one of his six legitimate sons (or illegitimate sons perhaps), or one of their descendants was not the father of Eston Hemings or one of Eston’s male descendants at some time during the last 200 years?” (6).

More pithily, Carl Ladd, supervisor of the DNA unit of the Connecticut State Police, told the Washington Times, the study “doesn’t mean bingo as to whether Jefferson is or is not the father... (I)t is not conclusive” (5).

The message seems clear, rather than accept the authority of the editor of Nature or some other journal in the determination of scientific truth, both the media and the public at large should be skeptical about all scientific claims until they have been evaluated, not only by peer-reviewed journals, but also in the open forum of scientific and public discussion. In particular, the public should be skeptical about scientific claims that support political interests. When such claims lack intrinsic scientific significance (as in the case of those made in the Foster paper), their publication in a scientific journal should be recognized for what it is: an abuse of the scientific press.

Notes

(1) Editorial: Food for thought. Nature 397:545 (1999).

(2) naturalSCIENCE Cover Story: Peer review vindicates scientist dismissed for "improper" warning about genetically modified food. http://naturalscience.com/ns/cover/cover8.html.

(3) Foster, E.A., M.A. Jobling, P.G. Taylor, and others. 1998. Jefferson fathered slave’s last child. Nature 396:27-28.

(4) Lander, E.S. and J.J. Ellis. 1998. Founding father. Nature 396:13-14.

(5) Quotes from U.S. News and World Report, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Washington Times are cited in Samuel Francis’ December 1998 article in the New America, see Note 5.

(6) Francis, S. 1998. Historical trash talk. The New American 14:10. http://www.jbs.org/tna/1998/vo14no26.htm#Historical Trash Talk.


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