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50 Shades of Gal Gadot: The Genetic Truth Behind Wonder Woman's Race

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Israel has Gal-Gadot mania: Picture shows a giant billboard on the side of a office tower by the Ayalon Highway through the heart of Tel Aviv, showing a picture of the actress in costume, wielding her "sword". The picture says, "Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman, We Love You"
Giant billboard by major Tel Aviv traffic artery says: 'Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman, We Love You'Credit: Ariel Schalit, AP

Genetic analysis is getting both easier and more confusing. We now know, based on the latest science, that humans and Neanderthals interbred. We can know intimate details about diseases we may carry in our genes, but we cannot know a person's race.

Now an argument has been raging on internet whether Wonder Woman is white. But it's a specious speculation. What is white? Are Jews white? What, today, is "race"? Most human genetic variation does not show "racial" clustering of characteristics.

The ancestry of Gal Gadot, the actress playing Wonder Woman to much critical acclaim, doesn't actually matter. Apparently her family is Ashkenazi and hails from Eastern Europe and used to be called Greenstein. Genetic analysis could tell us the Neanderthal or Denisovan component of her genome, but not whether she is black or white. Or Jewish, for that matter.

Jews and all other humans are 99.9 percent identical in their genetic make-up. Just as there is no such thing as a "Jewish gene," there is no gene for "race," though the more we learn, the more nuances are coming to light. For instance, a recent study by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev  discovered that mitochondrial genes are expressed differently in Africans and non-Africans, leading to speculation that mutation in these genes were crucial to Homo sapiens' survival after he left Africa, in chilly Europe. But the reverse isn't true – you can't isolate mitochondria from a person and tell if he's African or not.

Ditto lactose intolerance. We know that 75% of Jews carry the trait for lactose intolerance. Jews and all other humans are 99.9 percent identical in their genetic make-up. But being lactose intolerant doesn't make you a Jew.

The more progress we make in genetics, the more we understand how much we don't understand of its fabulous complexity. Detractors of "race genetics" routinely point out that two people from completely different populations can be genetically more similar than two from the same population.

If sequencing can't tell us if we're black, white or brown, what can it tell us? Quite a lot.

Our inner brute

Recent advances in the technology of dating ancient preserved (though not fossilized) bones have enabled the Neanderthal and Denisovan to be sequenced. This has brought us new enlightenment, in that we now know our ancestors mated with those species tens of thousands of years ago. So we can know, with a very high degree of certainty, if a given person has or does not have Neanderthal genes. If he does, he's probably of European or Asian descent. If he doesn't, he's probably of African descent.

Meeting our inner brute isn't the end of the story. Sequencing can also tell us if we carry certain genes for specific recessive diseases, such Tay-Sachs and "breast cancer" genes.

It is true that communities, particularly inbred ones, can have defining characteristics. All Ashkenazi Jews are believed to have descended from a population of just 350 in the Middle Ages, around 30 generations ago.  Ashkenazis have certain typical genetic traits, though they are not unique to Ashkenazis, that became more prominent in the insular group. Defining characteristics among Ashkenazim might include a tendency to Tay-Sachs disease, an early-Alzheimer's onset gene, and others. Mizrahi Jews have problems too, including hereditary intolerance to fava beans.

What then is the value to the "pedigree" testing by various websites? The answer lies in your expectations, and understanding of the word "probability". Answers may not be clear-cut.

Credit: The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon

So, is Gal Gadot white? Look at a photograph and decide for yourself, if matters to you. Even if you could obtain a sample and test her genome, it wouldn't tell us.