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Sep 26 2006

Our common ancestors

Darwin’s theory of natural selection implies that we are all descended from common ancestors. Most people who have doubts about the theory tend to think that this is a proposition that we can either choose to accept or deny. After all, no one was around to see it, were they?

But Richard Dawkins’ excellent book The Ancestor’s Tale (2004) gives a surprisingly rigorous argument (on page 39) that back in the distant past, we must have all had common ancestors. He is such a good writer, both stylish and concise, that paraphrasing him would be a waste of time and I will give you an extended quote:

If we go sufficiently far back, everybody’s ancestors are shared. All your ancestors are mine, whoever you are, and all mine are yours. Not just approximately, but literally. This is one of those truths that turns out, on reflection, to need no new evidence. We prove it by pure reason, using the mathematician’s trick of reductio ad absurdum. Take our imaginary time machine absurdly far back, say 100 million years, to an age when our ancestors resembled shrews or possums. Somewhere in the world at that ancient date, at least one of my personal ancestors must have been living, or I wouldn’t be here. Let us call this particular little mammal Henry (it happens to be a family name). We seek to prove that if Henry is my ancestor he must be yours too. Imagine, for a moment, the contrary: I am descended from Henry and you are not. For this to be so, your lineage and mine would have to have marched, side by side yet never touching, through 100 million years of evolution to the present, never interbreeding yet ending up at the same evolutionary destination – so alike that your relatives are still capable of interbreeding with mine. This reductio is clearly absurd. If Henry is my ancestor, he must be yours too. If not mine, he cannot be yours.

Without specifying how ancient is ‘sufficiently’, we have just proved that a sufficiently ancient individual with any human descendants at all must be an ancestor of the entire human race. Long-distance ancestry, of a particular group of descendants such as the human species, is an all-or-nothing affair. Moreover, it is perfectly possible that Henry is my ancestor (and necessarily yours, given that you are human enough to be reading this book) while his brother Eric is the ancestor of, say, all the surviving aadvarks. Not only is it possible. It is a remarkable fact that there must be a moment in history when there were two animals in the same species, one of whom became the ancestor of all humans and no aardvarks, while the other became the ancestor of all aardvarks and no humans. They may well have met, and may even have been brothers. You can cross out aardvark and substitute any other modern species you like, and the statement must still be true. Think it through, and you will find that it follows from the fact that all species are cousins of one another. Bear in mind when you do so that the ‘ancestor of all aardvarks’ will also be the ancestor of lots of very different things beside aardvarks[.]

There is one aspect of this argument that is crucial and that is that our common shared ancestor Henry that Dawkins is talking about has to have lived at a time when he was of a different species from us, since the reductio argument he is using depends crucially on the unlikelihood of species evolution following separate but parallel tracks to arrive at the same species end point. Since all humans are descendants of this single animal Henry, we conclude that all the early humans must be the ancestors of all of us. So when Dawkins talks of us all sharing the same ancestors at some point, he means human ancestors, since all humans evolved from Henry’s line.

Of course, as time progresses, the human species descended fro Henry produced more descendants who then produced yet more descendants and so on, and there must come a time when the lines diverged so that not everyone living at later times is the ancestor of all of us, but only some. That transition time is called the identical ancestors (IA) time. i.e., Earlier than that, every human was the ancestor of all of us or none of us (i.e., their line went extinct). After the IA time, people share only some ancestors.

It is not hard to see that as time progresses even further, there will come a time when we all share just one common human ancestor, referred to as the most recent common ancestor or MRCA. After that time, everyone living today no longer shares a common ancestor.

I don’t know about you, but to me there is something extraordinarily beautiful about this idea that at one point in time we all shared the same single ancestor, and that some time further back, everyone who lived at that time was the ancestor of all of us. It seems to be such a decisive argument against tribalism. It is hard to maintain the idea that some groups of people are ‘special’ in some way, when we not only all descended from a single animal Henry, but that at a later time we all shared the same set of human ancestors. Not only that, but we are also cousins of all the species that currently exist.

No wonder some religious extremists are afraid to have their children learn this theory. It is so captivating one can see how it would fascinate and draw in anybody who begins to think seriously about it.

Having established that we have both an MRCA and a time where all our human ancestors were identical (the IA time), this raises the question of when these dates occurred.

And therein lies another surprise, to be discussed in an upcoming post in this series.

POST SCRIPT: We’re number 1?

Comedian Lewis Black tries to help Americans to see themselves as others see them.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Steve Lubot

    Hi Professor,

    Just thought I’d let you know, on an amusing note, that I read an article on this a month or so ago. Basically, 45 generations up the family tree of actress Brooke Sheilds you’ll find Mohammed. I think it’s a free article, not certain though. If not you can use:
    name: [email protected]
    pw: dailykos

    It works at pretty much any major news outlet’s website.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/12/AR2006081200607_pf.html

    I’m in D.C. now at GW Law in my first semester. Graduated from NYU with an MA in Intl Relations in the spring.

    Your recent Iran writings were particularly interesting. Presidents Musharraf and Karzai both spoke on GW’s campus in the last 5 days and made some news. Anyway, gotta get back to the reading :-)

    Hope you’re doing well. Thanks for everything once again.

  2. 2
    Mano Singham's Web Journal

    Some surprising facts about ancestors

    In 1999, Joseph T. Chang published a very interesting paper in the journal Advances in Applied Probability (vol. 31, pages…

  3. 3
    Mano Singham's Web Journal

    Looking for deep ancestors

    Richard Dawkins in his book The Ancestor’s Tale (2004) tells a fascinating story. He models his book on a journey…

  4. 4
    beepbeepitsme

    Ken Miller – On Apes and Humans
    http://beepbeepitsme.blogspot.com/2006/11/ken-miller-on-apes-and-humans.html

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