Friday, June 28, 2002

Sex in the Future: The Reproductive Revolution and How It Will Change Us by Robin Baker annoyed me at first. Not that the predictions of how technological advances in the area of reproduction will change society weren't interesting. But the attitudes in the book sometimes annoyed me with their insistence on biologically determining everything, with no room for change. Examples: "If there is a risk of suffering, the preprogrammed psyche will surface and destroy even the most determinded of 'open' relationships." Tell that to the people at "...we should not exaggerate the male role in parenthood." I think a lot of fathers would disagree with that one. Particularly those who raised kids by themselves.

The predictions and comments on current life are usually surprising, such as the one about how child support and paternity testing are helping the decline of the nuclear family, but they do make sense given their starting points. The science fiction scenarios throughout the book show the issues that could arise, though I was disturbed at the number of them that involved women conceiving the children of wealthy men just for the child support and other creepy situations. (However, they were probably no more unsettling than one would find in a science fiction anthology -- one just doesn't expect them in a mostly non-fiction work.) There is a lot of information on current situations such as fertility technology or the creation of Dolly the cloned sheep, but so much is covered that it's difficult for much of the technical stuff to sink in. Overall, it's a fascinating book for those interested in the ethics of reproduction technology, though one rather hopes some of Baker's predictions don't come true.

Monday, June 10, 2002

"Difficult to put down" is not a common description of books on evolutionary genetics, but Bryan Sykes' The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry definitely humanizes the process of analyzing DNA and determining the relationships between people, now and thousands of years in the past. Sykes tells the story of how he went from working on the genetics of inherited bone diseases in the early 1980s to extracting DNA from bones found in archeological sites, along with a short history of the discovery of DNA, blood groups, and other inherited characteristics that make tracing genetic relationships possible. Sykes was one of the researchers who identified the bones found in 1991 in Russia as being those of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, and three of their children, by comparing their mitochondrial DNA (inherited only from one's mother) with those of the living relatives (mitochondrial DNA also disproved the story of "Anna Anderson," supposedly the escaped Princess Anastasia).

Breaking his shoulder changed a three-day stay on the Pacific island of Rarotonga into several weeks' visit, and spurred Sykes to research the DNA of Polynesians and produce some very heavy evidence on the Asian side of the anthropological argument over whether the Pacific islands were settled by people from Asia or from the Americas. The next research problems were even greater -- are modern humans descended from a single line of beings that came out of Africa, or did several groups of pre-humans evolve separately into modern man in different locations? Is modern humanity a descendant of Neanderthal man, the Cro-Magnons who seem to have overrun them, or both? And did hunter-gatherer humans in Europe die out while new waves of farmer humans from what is now the Middle East overwhelmed them and took over the land? Sykes makes the scientific techniques used to answer these questions very clear (even for people like me who haven't had a biology class in the fifteen years since high school) and comes up with surprising answers. The book's title comes from the conclusion reached in his European research that 95% of those with European ancestry are descended from one of seven women (in fact, 47% from a single woman). For the entire world, 33 of these "clan mothers" have been discovered, though Sykes admits that many regions need a lot more research done. It is even hypothesized that every human being now alive is descended from a single woman, the "mitochondrial Eve." Since the examination of the mutations that occasionally take place in mitochondrial DNA allows an estimate of when these "clan mothers" lived, Sykes also creates fictionalized stories of their lives, which are rather more interesting for the idea of the way of life during different parts of the Stone Age than the made-up personal details.

For the relatively well-off who are curious, Sykes has even started a company with a web site at which, for an amount I'd consider rather hefty, will analyze your DNA and tell you which of these women you are descended from. I suppose it's a good way to support their research (and keep new genetic samples coming in) but most of us will probably have to stick with reading the book.