Icelanders are awesome


It’s not just because they are lucky enough to live in one of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet. It’s also because they’re great model organisms, guinea pigs — the zebrafish of humanity. They represent a small, isolated population with a well-documented history and excellent medical records, so they’re just the people you might want to do in-depth genetic studies on.

In these latest studies, deCODE sequenced the full genomes of 2,636 Icelanders, along with less detailed genetic information from more than 100,000 others, in the form of genotyping microarrays like the ones used by 23andMe that look at every 10,000 or so of the genome’s 3 billion letters. That covers almost a third of the entire population—and Iceland’s genealogical and medical records are famously exquisite. “The Icelandic system is the perfect system to do this in,” says Lisa Brooks, director of the genetic variation program at the National Human Genome Research Institute. Established by Norsemen and Celts in 9 A.D., Iceland has a remarkably homogenous population that can trace its lineage to just a few common ancestors, according to Kári Stefánsson, deCODE’s founder and CEO. That means that there’s less genetic variation, which in turn means less background noise to interfere with the identification of meaningful gene variants. In the new papers, the tally is 20 million variants, some of which have already been linked to diseases.

It just makes a fellow want to visit and do experiments.

There’s another reason to visit, too — they’re a nation of hilarious freethinkers. A while back, I mentioned how, as a joke, Icelandic atheists proposed to register every newborn as an atheist, as a reaction to the default assumption that they’re all Lutheran. There was a media meltdown over it, which just goes to show how touchy the religious are.

Now Vantrú has posted an analysis of the outcome of their satire. It’s good reading: not only do they make serious points about contradictions in the Icelandic constitution, they also post some of the outraged mail they got from Christian Icelanders who were appalled at being enrolled in an organization they did not support, against their will. I hope they’ve since learned some perspective, and now appreciate how atheist Icelanders might feel.

And if they don’t, they’re the first in line for the creepy invasive genetic experiments.

No! Not really!

I am going to have to find another excuse to visit Iceland, though. Beautiful place, wonderful people, and a charming city — my daughter has wisely chosen to have her honeymoon there. If only I could peel my wife away from her work for a few weeks, we could go on our own second honeymoon there…not that that will happen anytime in the near future.


  1. tyro says

    There’s much to like, but their zealous advocacy of whaling is a real mark against them. At least for me.

  2. Nick Gotts says

    Established by Norsemen and Celts in 9 A.D

    That should be 9th century C.E. The first Norse settlement was in 870, and some of the early Norse settlers brought “wives” (i.e., probably victims of kidnap, enslavement and repeated rape) from Ireland and Scotland. There were a few monks living in Iceland earlier.

  3. twas brillig (stevem) says

    Remind us why Iceland is green while Greenland is ice .?…?.
    Were they just marketing ploys, or something to due with the Medieval Warm Moment?

  4. David Marjanović says

    Were they just marketing ploys, or something to due with the Medieval Warm Moment?


  5. Tom Reeves says

    You forgot to mention how they rebuilt their economy after the 2007 crash. They made the banks and their shareholders pay.

  6. johnhodges says

    #5 Twas brillig: Jared Diamond has a book COLLAPSE: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed, which has a chapter on Greenland During the Medieval Warm, there was a colony there that lived by farming. They didn’t do fishing, because the colonists had not done fishing in their previous location. When the weather returned to cold, the colony failed. Calling it “Greenland” was indeed a marketing ploy, at the beginning. Someplace else I read about Iceland; I didn’t hear about how they got that name, but from the beginning they were strong on fishing. They had to be very careful about agriculture because the soil is very thin, and under it is just volcanic ash; if you let the topsoil erode away, by wind, rain, overgrazing, whatever, you have ash, and the soil takes ages (perhaps geological ages) to build up again.

  7. empty says

    The process of their conversion to Christianity was rather interesting as well.

    From Wikepedia:

    When Olaf Tryggvason ascended the throne of Norway, the effort to Christianize Iceland intensified. King Olaf sent an Icelander named Stefnir Thorgilsson back to his homeland to convert his fellow countrymen. Stefnir violently destroyed sanctuaries and images of the heathen gods – this made him so unpopular that he was eventually declared an outlaw. After Stefnir’s failure, Olaf sent a priest named Thangbrand (Old Norse: Þangbrandr). Thangbrand was an experienced missionary, having proselytized both in Norway and the Faroe Islands. His mission in Iceland from c. 997–999 was only partly successful. He managed to convert several prominent Icelandic chieftains, but killed two or three men in the process.[1] Thangbrand returned to Norway in 999 and reported his failure to King Olaf, who immediately adopted a more aggressive stance towards the Icelanders. He refused Icelandic seafarers access to Norwegian ports and took as hostages several Icelanders then dwelling in Norway. This cut off all trade between Iceland and its main trading partner. Some of the hostages taken by King Olaf were the sons of prominent Icelandic chieftains, whom he threatened to kill unless the Icelanders accepted Christianity.

    I love the title to this section in Wikipedia:

    Kings of Norway exert pressure

  8. Anisopteran says

    Iceland is indeed an astonishing place – breathtaking landscapes, geysers, the aurora borealis, hot springs, feisty Icelandic horses, geothermal energy, friendly people, and a remarkable innovative and progressive mindset. And yes #1, you can see restaurant menus with whale and puffin. No-one’s perfect, I suppose. But I would go back there at the drop of a hat…

  9. says

    @9: Among the things I inherited from my parents is a very nice (and no doubt rather expensive) set of pewter flatware decorated in a theme commemorating King Olaf. The handles bear a bas-relief of men in period armour, and the inscription “HELLIG OLAF OG HANS MENN” (tr: Holy Olaf and his men). They presumably chose the pattern on aesthetic grounds; I can’t imagine a pair of English agnostics being interested in a notably Christian Norwegian king for his own sake.

    Anyways, I never use it because it doesn’t go in the dishwasher; now I have a positive reason to get off my ass and sell it. I can probably get some respectable dosh for it….

  10. David Marjanović says

    Someplace else I read about Iceland; […] They had to be very careful about agriculture

    Well, they found that out the hard way. When they arrived, Iceland was covered by forest; the colonists proceeded to engage in agriculture like in England, and soon the trees and the soil were gone.

  11. David Marjanović says

    The process of their conversion to Christianity was rather interesting as well.

    They ended up adopting Christianity by an act of parliament which (at first) continued to allow private worship of the old gods…

  12. vole says

    100% literacy; sculpture everywhere; shop assistants who want to discuss philosophy or geothermal energy; probably the world’s most varied selection of waterfalls; all this, and two bonus letters in the alphabet! One of the most civilised countries I have visited. Only Mongolia is in the same class (though for slightly different reasons).

  13. joe321 says

    I was reading all the positive comments, and thought, can Iceland be any more awesome? Then I read the Vantru page and the answer is a resounding YESSSSS!!!!

    three MP’s from the Pirate Party have submitted a motion to have the law repealed.

    A country with a pirate party is so awesome it boggles the mind!

  14. joe321 says

    OK, I have done more research. It seems that Pirate Parties are not unusual. There are several registered Pirate parties, including Canada and the US:

    We could use some elected members in North America! However, Iceland maintains its “awesome” label since 5.1 % of the electorate voted for the Pirate Party and 3 members were elected.

  15. oldskoolnyc says

    No one mentioned the hotties of Nordic stock! It’s been 20 years since I was stationed there but, I have plenty of fond memories of aggressive Icelandic women making moves even if I was with one!