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We really are all Africans - or are we?

I first saw Chris Stringer, researcher at Londonís Natural History Museum, in Alice Robertsís superb TV series on the origins of modern man a couple of years ago.

The Observer (19 June 2011) had an excellent article by Stringer giving us the latest evidence for the belief that all Homo Sapiens is descended from a common ancester known as íMitochonidrial Eveí, who lived in Africa around 200,000 years ago. You can read the article on the paperís website.

Stringerís latest book, on the same subject, was published recently. Itís called The Origin of our Species. I pondered whether or not to buy the Kindle edition, because I might miss out on the subleties of some of the illustrations. Then it occurred to me that they might be okay in Kindle for PC, so I took a risk on the download and found that the pictures look fine. I thought I might even be able to pinch them via a screen save and see them even bigger - yes, they can be captured, but at screen resolution so no good for enlarging, and thereís no right-button menu in Kindle for PC.

(I still feel that Brian Coxís Wonders of the Universe will be better on paper, for the illustrations as well as for the absence - I hope! - of the travelogue stuff that so marred the TV series: sentence started in Outer Mongolia and completed in the Peruvian Andes - or do I exaggerate?. Christmas, perhaps...)

22/7/2011 Iím about two-thirds of the way through the book (on the handheld Kindle). Itís fascinating, but no easy read. Stringer obviously knows his (and every other researcherís) stuff inside-out, but I donít think heíll ever be a top-ranking science populariser. He seems to assume quite a lot of knowledge on the part of his readers. As an example, I kept reading references to íthe Cro-Magnonsí and was sure heís never explained who they were, so I did a search on Kindle for PC and the first hit gave me the following: íThus, the completely modern remains that had been found in the sites of Cro-Magnon...í. Luckily I have The Oxford Dictionary of English on the Kindle, and this gave me a clear definition. More when Iíve finished. Meanwhile, I wish Iíd started taking notes when I began reading...

26/7/2011 Iíve just hit the end of the main text, somewhat unexpectedly because itís followed by a truly vast bibliography. If I was to read my way through all Stringerís references Iíd probably have to live for another 50 years!

So whatís the verdict?

A frustrating book. With just nine long chapters containing no breaks or subheadings, each consisting of a succession of very long paragraphs, each of which is in turn built from mostly long, often complicated and rather simply punctuated sentences, this is a challenging read. With the lack of sub-structure, itís virtually impossible to refer back to previously-read material, especially on the Kindle. This is a shame, because Stringer clearly has great understanding of the many disciplines he covers and the book is obviously a comprehensive survey of decades of research by hundreds of meticulously-credited scientists. While Stringer doesnít hesitate to disagree with the conclusions of colleagues, he is generous in admitting the uncertainties left by his own work and pointing to the long road ahead.

If my memories of Alice Robertsís series are correct, her absolute certainty about the Recent African Origin theory might have been rather premature. Stringer still supports this theory as by far the most likely account of modern manís spread across the planet, but he acknowledges that there may have been many interbreedings with Neanderthals and earlier close relatives, which may or may not have left descendants behind.

Conclusions, then?

Itís clear that many scientific disciplines are contributing to our growing understanding of how our species got to where it is today. Michael Crichtonís idea of extracting ancient DNA from mosquitos trapped in amber is no longer fantasy: it seems that we are well on the way to sequencing the complete genomes of humans who lived tens - even hundreds - of thousands of years ago from DNA extracted directly from their fossilised bones! Stringer even raises the possibility of cloning a Neanderthal, though he ends this by suggesting that perhaps we should leave them to rest in peace!

I have written elsewhere about Sean B Carrollís books, particularly The Making of the Fittest - DNA and the ultimate forensic record of evolution, which first alerted me to the fact that DNA does far more than tell us how we are built: it contains a complete evolutionary history. The contribution of this evidence is clear from Stringerís book. So is the complexity of the evolutionary process: we all know about natural selection (ísurvival of the fittestí) but less is said about sexual and cutural selection. The former probably explains how different the íracesí of man look today because people of breeding age tend to choose partners who look similar to themselves and their kin. The latter perhaps explains why some communities have succeeded while others have failed. Even the importance of grandparents in preserving and passing on their cultures - and in freeing up parents for hunting and gathering by taking over child-care - becomes clear from this book. Then thereís the knotty problem of íaltruismí: from the crude survival-of-the-fittest model it has always been difficult to explain why a human being would sacrifice his or her life for the good of others, but itís actually quite obvious why that human being, living in an extended kinship group, might make the ultimate sacrifice so that his or her genes could survive in others; to me, this actually reinforces the íselfish geneí theory - the individual becoming less important than his or her own genes.

I think there is the basis for a truly huge TV series here - and an accompanying book written (under Stringerís close supervision) by a more skilled communicator...

And from the BBC...

A two-part BBC1 series called Planet of the Apemen: Battle for Earth, broadcast at the end of June 2011, used surprisingly effective - if a touch fanciful - dramatisation interspersed with short comments from scientists, including Chris Stringer, to explain the ítriumphsí of Homo Sapiens over Homo Erectus in India and the Neanderthals in Europe. The explanations of how ímodern maní gradually ousted his rivals were backed up with plenty of evidence about anatomical differences in both body and brain, the latter allowing the development of more sophisticated language and therefore ability to co-operate in larger groups.

Interesting to see the dark-skinned newcomers triumphing over their rivals, who had been out of Africa thousands of years longer and had therefore evolved lighter skins - something for the racists to ponder, perhaps...

More recently

Another excellent series from Alice Roberts (now a mum!) - Origins of Us. This time, she looked at various human characteristics and how they must have evolved. The two things that really stuck in my mind were:

  • We actually have smaller brains and skulls than some of our forbears, which is a good thing because without the evolution of women with wider pelvises and large birth canals childbirth would have become far more hazardous for both mother and baby;
  • Also on the matter of reproduction, she explored the importance of grandmothers in child-care, freeing the mother to work and to produce more children sooner, to explain why human females - unlike those of most other species - live far beyond their reproductive years.

Good stuff, Alice! Keep them coming...

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.