Re: Mitochondrial "Eve"

J. Moore (
Mon, 1 May 95 18:42:00 -0500

Vi> >>Even in the "out of Africa" scenerio proposed by Cann and Stoneking
Vi> >>Homo sapiens evolves from Homo erectus. It is therefore difficult
Vi> >>to argue that no Homo erectus genes have been passed on to Homo
Vi> >>sapiens.
Vi> >>
Vi> >>The mtDNA analysis is one piece of a very important debate taking
Vi> >>place in anthropology today and the question is by no means settled.
Vi> >>As to the issue of genocide the problem with this hypothesis is
Vi> >>that there is no evidence to support it, either for Homo erectus
Vi> >>or for Australopithecines.
Vi> >>Phil Nicholls

Vi> > Please excuse the error. I did not mean that there were
Vi> no identical , or nearly identical genes, in H. Erectus and
Vi> H. Sapiens. I was misunderstood. As H. Sapiens came out
Vi> of Africa and replaced H. Erectus there was NO
Vi> INTERBREEDING and hence no gene exchange. This comes
Vi> from the work on Mitochondrial DNA by Wilson (deceased)
Vi> and Rebecca Caan.
Vi> Vincent1.

This is not a consequence of what the MtDNA data showed. First, it only
shows a lineage back a certain (and somewhat arbitrary) distance.
Second, it's only one side of the lineage. The initial claims WERE
more like what you said here, as Allan Wilson (who generally did the
presentations) put forth the idea of one population replacing another
by killing it off. This wasn't, however (as I mentioned above) a
consequence that followed from the data.

I think the problem arose as it often does in paleoanthropology, from
people who work with certain primary data (such as fossils, or
molecular studies of various kinds) making conclusions without doing the
other sorts of study that the field requires. In one sense I don't
blame them -- it's a hell of a lot of work. But if they don't want to
do the work, they should either present their data without sweeping
conclusions or team up with someone who knows the other parts of the
field. In the case of Wilson and Cann they didn't do that; they assumed
that knowing the molecular data somehow imbued them with knowledge that
allowed them to simply bypass any more than cursory additional study of
the rest of the field.

This is, sadly, a not uncommon problem. Partly it's because few people
have a very extensively varied educational background in the field. I
mean that if you wanted to have a great background for studying human
evolution, you might want someone with, for instance, a pre-med degree,
followed by graduate anthro experience with maybe RA (research
assistant) work in physical anthro with Sherwood Washburn, RA in
cultural anthro with Cliff Geertz, maybe some work as an RA in
linguistic anthro with Dell Hymes, and perhaps throw in an MA in
education. But anthropologists like that are hard to find.

The most likely way to get around this is to study the other stuff on
your own, or extensively consult with others before making claims
outside your own field of expertise. The early MtDNA "Eve" articles
were an example of how not to come up with a conclusion. (Good,
innovative work; bad conclusion.)

A couple of sidenotes about all this: I saw Wilson at the AAA meetings
once where he gave a plenary address on this (a couple years after it
first broke) and he claimed to be surprised at creationists and the like
using his work as "support" for their views. He protested that he was
perplexed at how they could do that, just because he used the word "Eve"
and repeatedly spoke of "the mother of us all" etc. The moral of that
is: watch out for catchy metaphors; they can and usually will come back
to haunt you (S. J. Gould has had the same thing happen to him, and I
contend that only a fool could really be surprised).

The other sidenote is that Wilson did change his "they killed them off"
tune and I may have been there when he did. Nancy Tanner and I were in
the first row for a talk by Wilson at a conference in Southhampton. We
were sitting there, very interested in the subject, and he certainly
noticed us. (Nancy had an extremely expressive face, and even people we
didn't know often mentioned after they'd given a talk that they focussed
on Nancy's face as they talked, because they could tell exactly how they
were doing.) Well, in this case, Nancy and I were nodding in unison as
Wilson made his points, and I thought afterward it must have looked
rather comical as we nodded together as he made each point. This went
on for 10 or 15 minutes, until Wilson got to his point about "they
killed them off". At that point, without looking at each other, nancy
and I, still in unison, firmly shook our heads "no!". Wilson peered
over the lectern directly at us, and paused for a moment before
gathering his thoughts and finishing his talk. The next time we heard
him, that part of the MtDNA "Eve" hypothesis was gone.

Jim Moore (

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