Apr 24 2011

What We Owe Eve

I am a genealogy enthusiast who has spent countless hours tracing my roots back through the generations, often discovering historical gems that connect me to people I had never heard of whose survival and life choices resulted in my existence. It is a sobering and soul-stirring experience.

When Bryan Sykes’ book, The Seven Daughters of Eve was first released, the genealogist in me was way stoked. Here was the Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford spelling out in words what many of us humans had already concluded in our hearts was true: All of humanity is, in fact, one family.

Blasting any lingering ideas of multi-regional human origins, Sykes, using mitochondrial DNA as a guide, shows how every human being alive today descended from an original “Eve” — an East African woman who passed her mitochondrial DNA to her daughters, and they to their daughters, and so on until your mother and mine.

What makes mitochondrial DNA so fascinating is that unlike recombinant DNA, which we inherent from both parents, and which recombines from one generation to the next to create the beautiful diversity in humanity, mtDNA is passed down from our mother only, and it does not recombine. Your mtDNA is like a relationship timeline that can accurately reveal your generational proximity to another person (that is, how recently related to another human being you are).

We have been conditioned to use physical features to determine our “racial” proximity to others, but the physical features we typically use to determine someone’s “race” (skin color, eye color, hair texture, facial features) are actually determined by a very small amount of human genetic material — less than 1% of who we are genetically has anything to with how we look! In Seven Daughters of Eve, Sykes gives countless examples of people who thought they belonged exclusively to one “racial” group, only to have their mtDNA reveal that their ethnicity was quite mixed and that they had recent ancestors of other “races.”

These stories and others like them make nonsense of any biological basis for racial classifications…We are all a complete mixture; yet at the same time, we are all related…Our genes did not just appear when we were born. They have been carried to us by millions of individual lives over thousands of generations.

The implications of Sykes’ work are potentially life-changing for us as individuals, and world changing for us as a human family. When enough human beings make the shift from focusing on imaginary racial and geographical boundaries, to recognizing how truly interconnected we all are, perhaps we will collectively move toward a more peaceful coexistence on this planet we all call home.

Sykes puts it in perspective with this analogy:

I am on a stage. Before me, in the dim light, all the people who have ever lived are lined up, rank upon rank, stretching far into the distance…I have in my hand the end of the thread which connects me to my ancestral mother way at the back. I pull on the thread and one woman’s face in every generation, feeling the tug, looks up at me…These are my ancestors…These are all my mothers…

I love that in every human cell mitochondria is the “engine” that uses oxygen to power everything. It is as if, there, in our mitochondria, is our GREAT grandmother Eve, telling us collectively to breathe deeply — and to remember our connection to her and to one another.

The Seven Daughters of Eve may sound too scientific to read for pleasure, but Sykes personalizes the science in a way that makes it a truly interesting read. I highly recommend this book!