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Why we look different despite having identical ancestors

In the previous post in this series, I reported on a paper by Douglas L. T. Rohde, Steve Olson, and Joseph T. Chang and published in the journal Nature that said that if we go back about 5,000 years, the ancestors of everyone on Earth today are exactly the same. This date is called the IA point, where IA stands for ‘identical ancestors’.

One question that will immediately arise in people’s minds is that if all our identical ancestors lived so recently, how is it that we look so different? If you take four people from China, Sri Lanka, Sweden, and Malawi, they are usually fairly easily distinguishable based on physical appearance alone, using features such as skin color, hair, facial features, etc. How could this happen if they all had identical ancestors as recently as 5,000 years ago?

The answer lies in the fact that while it is true that we all share the same ancestors, it does not mean that we all received that same genetic information from that common ancestral pool.

It is true that each of us gets exactly half our genes from our fathers and half from our mothers. But when we pass on our genes to our children, while each child gets exactly half from each parent, that does not imply that they get exactly one quarter from each grandparent. What is true is that on average each child gets one quarter of the genes from each grandparent.

The reason for this is because when a sperm or egg is formed, the genetic information (say in the egg formed in the mother) that goes into it undergoes a process of recombination in which the genes the mother obtained from her parents get mixed up before the transfer into the egg. It is thus theoretically possible, though unlikely, that a child will have zero genetic information from one of her four grandparents.

Furthermore, as we go down to the next generation, the average genetic information received by a child is now just one-eighth from any given great-grandparent. After many generations, even the average contribution of someone to each descendant approaches zero and it is not hard to imagine that some ancestors will have descendants who inherited none of their genetic information. In fact, as Rohde, Olson, and Chang say, “because DNA is inherited in relatively large segments from ancestors, an individual will receive little or no actual genetic inheritance from the vast majority of the ancestors living at the IA point.”

Furthermore, “In generations sufficiently far removed from the present, some ancestors appear much more often than do others on any current individual’s family tree, and can therefore be expected to contribute proportionately more to his or her genetic inheritance. For example, a present-day Norwegian generally owes the majority of his or her ancestry to people living in northern Europe at the IA point, and a very small portion to people living throughout the rest of the world.”

So even though we all have the same set of ancestors, the amount of genetic information received from any one ancestor will vary wildly from person to person.

As long as populations remained largely isolated, they could thus evolve different physical characteristics, although even a tiny amount of migration between populations is enough to create the early common dates of the MRCA (most recent common ancestor) and IA.

There are some factors that could shift those dates back further.

If a group of humans were completely isolated, then no mixing could occur between that group and others, and the MRCA would have to have lived before the start of the isolation. A more recent MRCA would not arise until the groups were once again well integrated. In the case of Tasmania, which may have been completely isolated from mainland Australia between the flooding of the Bass Strait, 9,000–12,000 years ago, and the European colonization of the island, starting in 1803, the IA date for all living humans must fall before the start of isolation. However, the MRCA date would be unaffected, because today there are no remaining native Tasmanians without some European or mainland Australian ancestry.

No large group is known to have maintained complete reproductive isolation for extended periods.

It seems to me that these results arguing for the fact that our most recent common ancestor lived about 2,000 years ago and that we all have the same common ancestors who lived just 5,000 years ago are pretty robust.

This has profound implications for origins myths and tribalism. Some people like to have a sense of racial pride by thinking that they represent ‘pure’ races. This research argues that this view is rubbish. None of us are ‘pure’. We are all cousins, and fairly close ones at that.

Comments

  1. says

    Asalam O alikum Please disscuss the reasons why we all human beings differe from each other, though we have almost similar genome at exon level and produces phenotypic differnces in all of us..?

  2. says

    How is that we look so different from each other eg African in comparison to Caucasian or Asian if our same common ancestors is so recent?

  3. says

    Shannon,

    Although we all have the same common ancestors, the proportions of genes we get from them is not the same. Some people get a greater proportion of their genes from one set of ancestors and thus look Asian, while others get most from a different set and look African, and so on.

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