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47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "We are all Africans under the skin", 3 May 2010
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This review is from: The Incredible Human Journey [DVD] [2009] (DVD)
In this excellent BBC TV series Alice Roberts follows in the footsteps of our ancestors, who left Africa and ended up populating the whole world. The TV series is very enjoyable, and there is also an accompanying book which goes into much more detail on the scientific debates. I recommend both the DVD and the book. I first wrote this review in relation to book, but it applies equally to the TV series.

Roberts shows how the evidence from bones, artefacts and genes tells us that Homo sapiens (modern humans) evolved in Africa between 200,000 and 150,000 years ago and that all non-African humans throughout the world today are descended from one group of Homo sapiens who left Africa between 85,000 and 65,000 years ago.

On her journey Roberts meets people who personify and bring to life many of the debates relating to human evolution. For example, at Pinnacle Point in South Africa she meets one of the archaeologists who have been excavating Blombos Cave. It was here that shell beads and pieces of ochre with carved geometric patterns were found dating back 75,000 years. At the same place other pieces of ochre were found dating back to 164,000 years ago, showing that modern humans were painting by that date. This evidence shot down the theory held by some scientists that art (and therefore modern brains and behaviour) did not appear until about 40,000 years ago in Europe. (For more on this, see my review here on Amazon of Stephen Oppenheimer's book, "Out of Eden".)

Roberts meets some people who still refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence that all humans today are descended from African Homo sapiens. Some still cling to the untenable view that different so-called "races" of people evolved separately in different parts of the world from an earlier Homo species. For example, the Chinese government advocates the view that the people of China are special because they evolved separately from the rest of modern humanity, from Homo erectus in China. This has echoes of the time when Western racists claimed that white Europeans were superior and had come into existence separately from other "races".

But Roberts also meets the Chinese geneticist Jin Li, who "started off wanting to prove the patriotic theory that the modern Chinese had a heritage that stretched back, unbroken, to Homo erectus, a million years ago." To his surprise, Li's research actually proved that this was NOT the case. It showed that the "recent Out of Africa hypothesis" was correct. To his great credit, Li accepts the evidence, and Roberts praises his "open-mindedness and objectivity".

Roberts meets surviving hunter-gatherers and sees their egalitarian way of life. She then looks at the origins, only about 12,000 years ago, of settled societies and agriculture. She shows the contradictory nature of this change. The development of agriculture is usually seen as "progress", and it certainly created the conditions for a massive increase in population by producing a food surplus. This in turn provided the basis for the later growth of cities and "civilisation". But Roberts also shows that farming led to a worse quality and variety of diet and to a "general decline in health". (I would add that farming also paved the way for the development of class divisions, gender inequalities and war.)

Roberts shows that some questions still have to be resolved. For example:
- Were modern humans responsible for the extinction of the Neanderthals?
- Did modern humans interbreed at all with Neanderthals?
- Exactly when and by what route did our ancestors first move into the Americas?
- Did hunting by humans cause the extinction of large animals in various parts of the world?
- Was it natural selection in relation to climate or sexual selection which led to the physical and facial differences between humans from different parts of the world?
- Was it farmERS or farmING which spread across Europe from the Middle East?

Finally, Roberts shows throughout the book how the climate and climate change have had an effect on both the biology and culture of our ancestors. And she ends by warning that global solutions are needed now if we are to avert the dangers that climate change is facing us with today.

Phil Webster.
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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 28 May 2010 10:11:35 BDT
Last edited by the author on 26 Nov 2010 09:18:23 GMT
Before you rubbish the genetic differences between races to much, I would watch:- Darwin's Dangerous Idea [DVD], particularly Episode 2:- Born Equal? This excellent and highly informative programme is not some racist/creationist propaganda; it is written and presented by Andrew Marr, a TV 'insider' whose egalitarian liberal/socialist credentials are impeccable, and co-produced by the Open University, similarly a bastion of liberal egalitarianism. The programme begins with a 15/20min ritual denounciation of Nazi eugenics; but then moves on to introduce Nazi concentration camp survivor Rabbi Joseph Eckstein, who fled Europe following his liberation in 1945 and later established 'Dor Yeshorim', a "charity dedicated to the erradication of genetic diseases within the Jewish community". In less than thirty years, this sensitively run but highly efficent organisation has all but erradicated Tay Sachs, a ghastly genetic disease which had previously been the curse of Brooklin's Jewish community for generations.

Following this splendid example of how to use genetic research for the betterment of all, Andrew Marr then introduces Dr Bruce T Lahn; a Chinese geneticist who fled to America from Red China following the Tiananmen Square massacres. Since working at Chicago University, Dr Lahn has discovered the gene varient's ASPM & MCPH 1 which blesses it's bearers with 'bigger and smarter brains'. A horrified commentator said of this momentous discovery that it's:- "the moment the anti-racists and egalitarians have been dreading!" Why? Because the MCPH 1 gene is now indisputably known to have originated in Europe 'only' some 6,000yrs ago, and although now widespread amongst those of European descent, is far rarer in non-Europeans, being almost totally absent from the sub-Saharan African gene pool. Thus modern scientific research now incontrovertibly links intelligence levels to racial inheritance. You can obviously verify the scientific detail on numerous websites such as Wikipedia, which contains a long article by Bruce Lahn himself.

In the face of such genetic revelations my question is simple; should society follow the Catholic Inquisitorial, Nazi/Bolshevik precedents and ignore/suppress such politically volatile knowledge in an attempt to prop up now obsolete theories of 'racial equality', or should we follow the guiding hand of Rabbi Eckstein; accept the truth of racial difference but use this wisdom to aid/raise those presently afflicted/disadvantaged?

To conclude, I should also like to point out the incredible 'coincidence' in the time scale of this genetic discovery. The traditional Biblical date of Adam's 'creation' is 6,000yrs ago; this gene first appears within European humanity 6,000yrs ago; while the original Sumerian legends upon which much of the Bible was based, say the God's first made 'thinking Man' at about that time; by implanting 'free-will/reason' within a more primitive but related species. Could it be that the message left us by our first ancestors was true all along, but became mythologized/missunderstood by their descendants with the passing of millenia???

Posted on 28 May 2010 10:23:40 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 28 May 2010 10:24:19 BDT]

Posted on 12 Jan 2011 03:21:36 GMT
Last edited by the author on 12 Jan 2011 03:22:27 GMT
Viewer says:
***development of agriculture is usually seen as "progress", and it certainly created the conditions for a massive increase in population by producing a food surplus. This in turn provided the basis for the later growth of cities and "civilisation"***

As the recent book, 'The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution', explains these factors also lead to increased genetic changes.

Steve Hsu cites UC Davis economist Greg Clark's work here:

"In my recent book, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World I argue two things. First that all societies remained in a state I label the "Malthusian economy" up until the onset of the Industrial Revolution around 1800. In that state crucially the economic laws governing all human societies before 1800 were those that govern all animal societies. Second that was thus subject to natural selection throughout the Malthusian era, even after the arrival of settled agrarian societies with the Neolithic Revolution.

The Darwinian struggle that shaped human nature did not end with the Neolithic Revolution but continued right up until the Industrial Revolution. But the arrival of settled agriculture and stable property rights set natural selection on a very different course. It created an accelerated period of evolution, rewarding with reproductive success a new repertoire of human behaviors - patience, self-control, passivity, and hard work - which consequently spread widely.

And we see in England, from at least 1250, that the kind of people who succeeded in the economic system - who accumulated assets, got skills, got literacy - increased their representation in each generation. Through the long agrarian passage leading up to the Industrial Revolution man was becoming biologically more adapted to the modern economic world. Modern people are thus in part a creation of the market economies that emerged with the Neolithic Revolution. Just as people shaped economies, the pre-industrial economy shaped people. This has left the people of long settled agrarian societies substantially different now from our hunter gatherer ancestors, in terms of culture, and likely also in terms of biology."

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Jan 2011 11:40:41 GMT
Last edited by the author on 9 Apr 2011 11:05:56 BDT
The point 'viewer' makes about settled agricuture/civilization having redirected/accelerated human evolution by rewarding traits such as: "patience, self-control, passivity, and hard work" is self-evidently correct. Even in our own 20/21'st Century world these traits are massively beneficial to those fortunate enough to possess them. The only problem with such statements however is the questions they raise concerning the longer term effects of contraception, welfare etc... which by rewarding the opposite 'virtues' appear genetically detrimental to any society practicing them on a major scale.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Jul 2012 23:40:13 BDT
Lowri says:
As you have a keen interest in this matter, I would recommend reading the 2005 Lahn et al original article, it is searchable by MCPH1 Science mag as it certainly doesn't state: 'the MCPH 1 gene is now indisputably known to have originated in Europe 'only' some 6,000yrs ago.'

In fact the abstract states:

'We show that one genetic variant of Microcephalin in modern humans, which arose ∼37,000 years ago, increased in frequency too rapidly to be compatible with neutral drift. This indicates that it has spread under strong positive selection, although the exact nature of the selection is unknown'

The approximate value of 37,000 years is given as a median between the earliest possible occurrence 60,000 years ago and its latest possible arrival 14,000 years ago.

It's also worth reading what the paper actually found: that it increased in the population too rapidly to be a chance occurrence, the evidence was strongly in favour of positive natural selection.

What that selection was for was not stated. Further research published by Evans et al 2007, again searchable at Harvard . edu stated:

'We genotyped these variants in 9000 children and find no meaningful associations with brain size and various cognitive measures, which indicates that contrary to previous speculations, ASPM and MCPH1 have not been selected for brain-related effects. '

So whatever advantages this mutation conferred it was not 'bigger and better brains'.

No one seriously disputes different genetic traits between ethnic groups, difference such as lactose toleration, sickle-cell anaemia and Tay-Sachs syndrome are well known and well recognised. Objective research is damaged by political groups of right and left over-extrapolating from new discoveries to suit their own ends as much as any `Catholic Inquisitorial, Nazi/Bolshevik precedents [to] ignore/suppress such politically volatile knowledge.'

In reply to an earlier post on 15 Jul 2012 20:36:21 BDT
Last edited by the author on 30 Jul 2012 10:18:28 BDT
Interesting comment which (due to my limited computer skills) I have as yet been unable to verify, but the article by Bruce Lahn himself on which I based this comment was very clear. The two genes I mentioned were ASPM & MCPH 1. Of these two it's ASPM that was given the 37,000 year median date you mention, with the MCPH 1 being specifically stated as having originated amongs't Europeans 'only' some 6,000yrs or 225 generations ago. Bruce Lahn also stated that these were linked to "the development of bigger smarter brains".

Although not particularly religious myself, I was immediately struck by how strongly this discovery supported the traditional Christian date of mankind's 'creation' and have since investigated the ancient Sumerian writings (as translated by Zecharia Sitchin) which repeatedly state that mankind was created by the Gods/Annunaki (Literal translation:- Those who from the Heavens came down.) as a labour force by implanting "reason/free-will" within a lower earthly creature (Neanderthal apes?). Having been prompted to investigate the latest Intelligent Design Theory by all this, I was amazed to find that the ASPM and MCPH1 genes are only two amongs't more than two hundred genes so far discovered which are unique to humanity alone amongs't all the living species on this planet! This indisputable genetic fact has driven a coach and horses through accepted Darwinian theory because classic evolution is driven by many tiny/inperceptable changes over long periods of time BUT if some 60% of the genes which seperate humanity from the apes did not even exist on this planet until a few thousand years ago, this simply cannot be true for the origin of mankind's intellectual abilities.

The current problem is that these genetic revelations are at present only really being publicised in the West by America's religious Right, which immediately engenders rabid hostility from the atheistic Liberal Left. Supposedly Bruce Lahn himself was unofficially 'warned off' this particular topic and has since abandoned further research; particularly ironic when it's realised he initially fled his Chinese homeland for America as the citadel of 'democracy and free speech' following his pre-Tiananmen Square activities?

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Jul 2012 00:16:42 BDT
Lowri says:
'On the word of no one' is the motto of the Royal Society for a reason Mr. Bradbury. Prof Lahn may sincerely believe he has found 'bigger and better brains' but until his published research provides evidence of that, it remains his belief.

I'm not sure Science - the journal in which the original research was published or Harvard which published the follow up study would regard themselves as organs of the American Religious right. If Prof Lahn was prevented from studying this area further that is very sad, but it is just as likely that the over extrapolations drawn by some fringe groups were to blame.

Even Prof Lahn does not claim these genes are the be-all and end all of intelligence. He has stated he does not believe himself to be a carrier. Also using genetics as a predictor for behaviours has many pitfalls. I'm sure you are aware of the case of the particular gene set that makes you (according to a US study) ten times more likely to commit murder, thirteen times more likely to commit armed robbery and forty-four times more likely to commit a sexual assault. Furthermore they are carried by 98% of the inmates on death row. How do you regulate that apparently genetic disposition?

I confess, you have somewhat confused me with the 60% of genes are new. Even if your source is correct and 200 new genes have arrisen, there are between 10,000 -25,000 genes in a human. So the percentage would be between 1-2%. Which doesn't seem an outlandish hammer blow to the theory of evolution.

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Jul 2012 15:45:11 BDT
Last edited by the author on 30 Jul 2012 10:24:02 BDT
I will attempt to clarify the 'unique genes' situation,although fresh discoveries may rapidly change opinions on this.

To construct a typical human being, nature needs some 30,000 genes, each of which tends to function rather like a word printed within an assembly manual. Of these 30,000 the vast bulk are shared with other species, simply because we share so many common characteristics, skin, bones, muscle tissue, stomach/digestive system, heart, lungs, eyes, etc... When compared across species, these shared genes exhibit the history of beneficial adaptions/mutations just as Darwin predicted.
As you say, although the differences between man and ape may seem large to us, they are dwarfed by the massive number of similarities, approx 95%+; BUT this very fact makes it all the stranger that of the only 500 or so genes which separate us from our animal cousins, 223 have so far been discovered (I assume there will soon be more?) to be unique to the human species alone; IE not shared with monkeys/apes or any other living things on this planet. Furthermore, all the 'unique genes' that have so far been investigated seem involved in or be related to the development of man's intellectual capacity. They seem to have 'appeared' within mankind only recently by evolutionary standards, and due to 'bacterial insertion' the method now used in modern laboratories! although it's believed this might happen naturally.

It's this cluster of apparently unbelievable 'coincidences' which has so envigorated both the Islamic and American Creationist fraternities, whils't also driving many Liberal/Socialist Gov'ts to legally supress/forbid certain types of genetic (including Stem Cell) research; NOT from moral concerns but from fear that further discoveries might genuinely destablise accepted atheist certainties today, just as Charles Darwin's discoveries destablised the Victorian World two centuries ago.

In reply to an earlier post on 29 Jul 2012 20:25:30 BDT
Last edited by the author on 29 Jul 2012 21:57:33 BDT
Lowri says:
My high school biology teacher described genetics to me in pretty much the way you do above. I suspect a lot of children still get taught this simplistic Gene A = Feature A because it is a good enough working model to get them through exam questions about red hair or green eyes. Unfortunately, this `good enough' explanation has led to a great deal of confusion, particularly when it comes to human brain development, with futile quests for "the autistic gene" and the "Schizophrenia gene" or even the "gay gene", when in fact gene expression is complex, depending heavily on the genes around it, feedback from the environment, metabolic pathways and how exactly the DNA molecule is copied during cell division.

Which - I think, might be why you are confused about the `223 genes [...] unique to the human species.' Well not quite. Dr Pritchard et al 2006 found 250 `signals of recent selection', not something never before seen on the planet. Again if you do want to check this please go to the home page of a search engine such as Google or Yahoo and put in the words "Pritchard 2006 PLoS Biology" and check the results for yourself.

The results of this survey were also reported on by the New York Times, with a supporting quote from Professor Lahn. I realise American politics can sometimes seem baffling to observers across the water, but let me assure you the New York Times is not considered a right-wing or religiously affiliated publication within the US.

In short what Pritchard et al found was some of the older genetic material had doubled up, some of it had picked up and shifted itself somewhere else (Transposable Elements) or broken into two transcribing areas, and that some of these `new genes' were showing signs of still being selected for until very recently. I'm not sure where the aliens were supposed to come in. This is all the everyday stuff of genetics. We still share 99% or our genetic material with a chimp (Source Chimp Genome Project 2005) and that is exactly what evolution would have predicted.

Also, I think you might be confusing human specific alleles (variant copies of genes) with genes. For example, the gene ASPM has existed long before humans did, only very recently ~6,000 years ago, did an allele `sweep' the human population. It's still the same gene, it just expresses slightly differently. (It's the ASPM variant that is ~6,000 years old and MCPH1~37,000. If you don't believe me go to google home page and type in MCPH1)

But there are truly new genes in the human genome, not explained by doubling up, gene fusion or fission or transposable elements. There are about 60 of them and we haven't yet worked out what they do. Some seem explicable by previously non-coding parts of DNA suddenly getting switched on; the rest - we don't know. (Source: `De Novo Origins of Human Genes' McLysaght 2011 PLoS Biology.) There are also new genes in yeast, plasmodium protozoa, rice, mice, fruit flies and non-human primates. So those aliens sure were busy.

I would very much like to know where you read "all the 'unique genes' that have so far been investigated seem involved in or be related to the development of man's intellectual capacity," as this is new knowledge to me and seems to contradict McLysaght's paper above. It isn't covered in the Pritchard paper as he stated most of the changes were implicated in already observable phenomena such as skeletal structure, melanin levels and lactose tolerance.

Incidentally stem cell research using embryos is legal in the UK and many states of the US. It was greatly restricted under the right wing president George W. Bush but the restrictions were lifted by Barak Obama. What stem cell research were you thinking of?

In reply to an earlier post on 30 Jul 2012 10:32:26 BDT
Last edited by the author on 30 Jul 2012 10:38:59 BDT
Reply to Lowri.

Your posts on recent genetic discoveries are very interesting indeed. I shall thus follow up this conversation when I've looked into (and understood?) the details you provide. Thank you for some genuinely stimulating/intelligent input.

PS. Is the article below by McLysaght the one you mention?

September 01, 2009

Genes Found Unique To Humans
3 genes have been identified that appear unique to humans and we might have a total of 18 genes unique to us.

In this work, David Knowles and Aoife McLysaght of the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin undertook the painstaking task of finding protein-coding genes in the human genome that are absent from the chimp genome. Once they had performed a rigorous search and systematically ruled out false results, their list of candidate genes was trimmed down to just three. Then came the next challenge. "We needed to demonstrate that the DNA in human is really active as a gene," said McLysaght.

The authors gathered evidence from other studies that these three genes are actively transcribed and translated into proteins, but furthermore, they needed to show that the corresponding DNA sequences in other primates are inactive. They found that these DNA sequences in several species of apes and monkeys contained differences that would likely disable a protein-coding gene, suggesting that these genes were inactive in the ancestral primate.

The authors also note that because of the strict set of filters employed, only about 20% of human genes were amenable to analysis. Therefore they estimate there may be approximately 18 human-specific genes that have arisen from non-coding DNA during human evolution.

One wonders whether these regions became active with an initial benefit or did the functional value of the translated regions come later?

These results may seem far-fetched. But a mutation that would cause a previously unused part of the genome to start getting translated into protein might happen in an area which originally came from a viral infection. A portion of viral DNA might have been incorporated into the genome. Also, many more inactive areas of the genome have gotten mutated into activity that caused no benefit or even harm. These few regions that went on to become useful genes arose out of a background of a much larger number of mutations that didn't produce anything useful.

Once we start genetically engineering ourselves the initial changes will involve adding sequences that some people already have. For example, women will want to genetically engineer their melanocytes to produce red or blond hair for example. Also, some men will get genetic engineering for more muscle. These will involve existing genetic sequences already present in the human population.

When things will get really interesting: A much deeper understanding of the functional purposes of genes from other species will turn up many features we do not have that some people will want for themselves or their offspring. When the first genetic transplant from another species into humans is done what will it be done for?
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