on December 23, 2006
What a marvellous little book! I was taken by surprise so many times during my reading, whenever I thought I knew what the author is about at the beginning of many of his stories. In a way, this is like a crime fiction book written by a clever writer that catches you off guard and it reveals the killer only at the last page. The writing style is deceivingly simple; Spencer gets over the scientific details of genetics in a few paragraphs where he tells you in plain English everything you need to know to understand this book. The book then flows smoothly and he managed to make it so easy for you to follow the main ideas and try to decipher what is probably the greatest puzzle of all: the origins of human race. You will have a few surprises.
You might have seen the National Geographic documentary "The Journey of Man". Its author is none other than same Spence Wells. He is only 37 years old, and very, very bright. I have to emphasize again the writing style: very simple, yet it explains clearly complex concepts. He talks science, yet he is humorous and light. He uses sometimes numbers and probabilities, but the book is in general built around stories of five people chosen to represent the main haplogroups (families or a clans of people that share the same genetic properties transmitted over many generations) in the history of mankind. Spencer Wells is currently a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and the director of Genographic Project. It is a great and fascinating role he is playing. The goal of this project is to collect about 100,000 genetic samples from people around the world that live in still pristine conditions: that is they live in the same area their families lived for a long time. This information is stored in a database and by applying sophisticated algorithms; we should be able to determine how we have evolved in time, how we migrated and how we came to become the people of today. I was a little bit sceptical about this entire concept, but the book convinced me. You will have to read it to understand what really means. It is a powerful idea.
The book is based on five stories told people with very different backgrounds. Each story will astound you. You will also have a better understanding of what genetic archaeology is. If you are familiar with DNA, it will make even more sense to you. The DNA is seen more and more like a cryptic library that holds many secrets about our evolution. Segments of code will reveal relationships never thought possible. This book does not go that much in detail, but it does tell you the story in a nicely narrated style that takes you step by step through the various haplogroups patterns, like a detective, and come up with unexpected conclusions.
In the end you will see why scientists believe that the Adam and Eve, the original parents of all the people that populated this planet today, lived around 60,000 years ago in Africa. If you take the time to think about it, you realise how amazing this is. In 2,000 generations we evolved from an ape like humanoid to the generation of the Internet. The book will take you through the Ice Age, the disappearance of Neanderthal, the conquest of Asia, the mystery of Australian Aborigines, invasion of Americas and many other adventures. Back to Africa, you will get to know how genetically diverse this continent is. Did you know that two of the oldest haplogroups (tribes) still live in Africa today and probably they speak the oldest language, perhaps the first languages? These people speak the so-called click languages that are more sophisticated in the variety of sounds than our modern languages.
The book has also information about how to purchase a Genographic Project Public Participation Kit. For $99.95 you can get that kit, collect your DNA sample and send it to the project office. The results are kept confidentially in the project database and you will have secure access to your DNA profile. You can find more details at [...]
I recommend this book to anyone curious about genetics, genealogy, history, evolution and genetic archaeology.
The human diaspora from Africa that populated the world has been the subject of several recent studies. At first, these books were bulwarks against the tide of "Multi-regionalism" - the idea that an early version of our ancestral species evolved into Homo sapiens at different times and places. Genetic research, including that of the author, has shown that we're all descended from a small African population. Placing our origins on one continent simplifies the task of analysis of tracking our movements. In this book, Wells explains how the examination works and what it reveals of our ancestry.
The tool is "markers" on the genome. For females it was the DNA in mitochondria, the cell's "powerhouse". For males, it is changes on the Y chromosome, that molecular structure triggering a shift from the default embryo condition. The author demonstrates how these indicators are detected and how they allow us to track our ancestry back in time. The markers designate genetic "borders" between groups of people who share a common ancestor in the deep past. The groups are called "haplotypes" - for which Wells, at least in the case of Europe, uses the term "clan". There are seven of these clans - designated by letter labels such as "R", "J" or "N" - descended from male originators. The approach is reminiscent of Bryan Sykes "Seven Daughters of Eve" , except Wells follows the male lineage where Sykes used mitochondrial DNA to source female origins. Both authors focus on the European records as being more complete and readily available. Wells also finds but five female lines as opposed to Sykes' seven.
Wells discusses how genetic "clocks" can postulate a rate of mutation over a long span of time to roughly determine the age of the haplogroup. Much of this assessment is sustained by archaeological record. The procedures pinpoint his own grandmother's ancestry, which is ostensibly Danish, to origins in the Middle East, some ten thousand years ago at the beginning of the adoption of agriculture. The shift to the Middle East leads Wells to examine people living today with roots in far corners of the world. One notable example is "Phil", whose Native American background becomes the start of a study of Siberian people. There have been many disputes about the origins of the Western Hemisphere's human settlers. Wells travelled to the Asian North to recover genetic data. The information clearly defines the link between Indian populations here and their ancestry in Eastern Asia.
Wells puts some effort into explaining how DNA works, what counts as a "mutation" and how these changes can be tracked down the generations. With enough samples from living populations in historically stable circumstances, he can provide maps of the distribution of the haplogroups and frequency of the haplotype in a given area. Ireland, for example, is populated almost exclusively by a single haplotype. He explains that The Genographic Project he heads is keen to collect more data, both to refine the European and Native American data, but to enlarge the information from other parts of the world. Clearly, this is a book "in progress", but stands firmly as a good basis for understanding the foundations of such research and its enlargement of knowledge of humanity. Although he states this book is "less technical" than his "The Journey of Man", there is sufficient information on how the data collection and analysis is undertaken to make the book readable and interesting to everybody. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on August 7, 2007
If you have read The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, you may find this book a bit of a let down. It is not that it is badly written, nor is the story uninteresting. It is just that the narrative has not advanced enough since the last book. There are some interesting additions, but a lot of repeat information. I would start with the DVD Journey of Man. After that you could read either book, but I recall enjoying Journey of Man better. Having said that, I will be looking for the next one because the research is fascinating.
Compared to Wells' earlier "Journey of Man" and Bryan Sykes' "Seven Daughters of Eve" and "Saxons, Vikings & Celts," (all three also reviewed by me on Amazon), this is considerably briefer, compressing the genetic information of both mDNA (female-transmitted) and Y-chromosome (male markers) lineages into 250 pp. including a long appendix listing all of the major profiles. Contrasted to the colorfully organized information on the National Geographic Society's "Genographic Project" online site, these appendices largely duplicate the same material in somber typeface. But, having it in book form combined with the previous 175 pp. of text, this makes a concise primer for public and home libraries that, even in our web-dependent age (as you and I know as we read this post!), still need print backup and expansion of material that on the web, as on the NGS site, must be too diffused and remains a bit unwieldy for easy cross-referencing and browsing.
The maps here tend to comment silently upon the material Wells discusses. Unfortunately, Wells more often than not fails to tie his sober, but not altogether dry, text tightly enough to the graphics. You look at the charts and can figure them out, sure, but if the author had taken greater effort in being more explicit, e.g. "see figure 6, where the so-and-so can be seen ranging across the this-and-that at such-and-such a rate," the integration of print and visuals would have enhanced the combined presentation of what can be challenging material for the layperson.
Wells, identified in the author's endnote as a "child prodigy," is ideally placed to write such an introduction to our "encapsulated history," but this efficiently summarized book does feel (as another reviewer commented) as a work in progress. Part of this sensation that much more is going on beneath what can be easily paraphrased for not-specialists may be that the popularization of whats going on in labs now may lag a couple of years behind what only a few experts (Sykes, Oppenheimer, and Wells himself along with possibly Luigi Cavalli-Sforza on a very short list) have the ability to translate findings derived from massive amounts of extraordinarily complex raw material into understandable prose aimed at the general reader.
Bits buried in the appendices demand whole books of their own. I look forward to future volumes about these issues....Half of Ashkenazi Jews can trace their line to four women, and three of those from one "K" group and another "N1." 10-20 people crossed the Bering Strait's landbridge to engender as "Q3" most Native Americans. Click languages may have been the earliest forms of speech. Berbers in North Africa and the Saami ("Lapps") near the Arctic Circle share roots. A non-Asian "X" haplotype is one of the five present among Native American populations; "X2" came not through Siberia but from Western Eurasia. (I wanted to know how this fit into the Kennewick Man controversy, but Wells seems to edge away from debate.) Hitting the Pamir Knot of three mountain ranges connected in Central Asia split up a formerly cohesive Eurasian clan into three main groups as they could no longer move east across that continent's Eastern France-to Korea "superhighway."
Seeing that Sykes has fired off two recent books aimed at the same audience, and that Stephen Oppenheimer also of Oxford (where Sykes taught too) has "The Real Eve" and the new "Origins of the British" in the past few years, now Wells has two. They-- each author having a book around 2002-4 and a second book within the past year) overlap in data and approach, but Oppenheimer appears the most academically dry, Sykes the most eagerly imaginative, and Wells takes the middle ground. No imagined scenarios (unlike Sykes, who by the way has a competing project to gather DNA data) for our NGS leader, but Wells does try with various individuals to make his chosen representatives from today's genetic lines come alive a bit with their own encounters with the data that the NGS finds.
But even this attempt at connecting the world of the test tube with that of those people we pass every day is not carried through enough. The relatively brief amount of discussion given, say, the African American "Odine" who shares Thomas Jefferson's own very rare if not unique genetic marker proves a letdown. Wells builds up the case with flair, but we fail to find enough by that chapter's end to understand exactly where the 3rd President got his genetic marker from and how its rarity in England points to a rather exotic lineage not only for Odine today but any descendant of the Jefferson clan.
In summary, the appendices and a well-chosen short list of suggested books and websites both anthropological and genealogical make this a useful source for beginners wanting a deeper look at their deep ancestry than the NGS site can provide, but not so technical as to bewilder the reader. In passing, Wells is surprisingly reticent about recruiting for the NGS project in his text, but there is an advertisement on the book's final page with information for those who wish to contribute. The NGS by the way uses the funds raised from volunteers here towards a Genographic Legacy Fund that gathers data for free from indigenous and traditional communities, so it's a worthwhile cause.
I would have liked to know more about how, if Wells studied with Luigi Cavalli-Sforza for his doctoral work at Stanford, or if Wells presumably worked alongside geneticists Oppenheimer and Sykes at Oxford, how his own project and conceptualization of how the DNA research could be used differed from his eminent mentors. (As an aside, Sykes in his recent "Saxons" book never mentions Oppenheimer who I assume is just down the hall from him at Oxford!) Cavalli-Sforza with his HGDP and Sykes with his company Oxford Ancestors appear to have slightly divergent goals from the NGS study, and I remain a bit unclear about where the three DNA-gathering enterprises cooperate or whether they are all amassing their data separately. Wells hints a bit about HGDP, but does not mention Sykes' company. I suspect that the whole scientific and enterprenuerial venture's combined story here may have to wait another half-century, when an elderly Wells (he's well under 40 now!) composes his memoirs.
The Genographic Project is an ambitious attempt to analyze the DNA records of human beings from around the world. As a participant in the Project, I already knew a bit about the basic levels of DNA research and its applications. Deep Ancestry provides a good grounding for people like me who understand a bit and want to know more about the subject, and also for those who have not yet become involved.
Spencer Wells writes well and has a gift for using personal vignettes to illustrate important points. This is especially useful in describing a field as unfamiliar as DNA research for most people. Many who read Deep Ancestry will be inspired to delve deeper, in which case I would recommend other works by Wells and also those of Bryan Sykes.
on May 6, 2007
We each inherit half our DNA from each parent, but not all of it is equally split: the Y chromosome always comes from the father, and the mitochondrial DNA, since it's part of the original egg cell, always comes from the mother. Thus, except for mutations, a man's Y chromosome is identical to his father's, his father's father's, and so on back into the mists of time. The same is true on the maternal line for mitochondrial DNA. This provides a great opportunity: analyzing markers on these specific chromosomes allows geneticists to trace one's ancestors back to the last common ancestor on either side, the so-called mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosome Adam. More, whenever there is a mutation, it is inherited down the population line to all future generations, so as populations spread out, the lines can continue to be followed. Examining the DNA of people all around the world, particularly those belonging to indigenous populations that have been in one place for many generations (as contrasted with your typical American mixed breed), allows geneticists to trace the spread of human beings across the globe.
This, in brief, is the Genographic Project, perhaps the most significant undertaking ever for an organization known for its significant undertakings, the National Geographic Society. This book tells the story of the project so far. It starts with a much more in-depth explanation of the concepts that I only describe briefly above, then goes on to relate the findings so far. Just as expected, humans originated in Africa: all the lines can be traced back there, and by far the greatest genetic diversity is to be found there. The later chapters start by describing the ancestry of specific individuals, then generalizing from there to cover the overall movements. Fifty thousand years ago one of the very first band of humans left Africa, and some of them made their way all the way down to Australia, becoming the ancestors of the aborigines. Other bands stopped in the Middle East, while still others populated eastern Asia, eventually moving, about ten or twenty thousand years ago, across a frozen Bering Strait into the Americas.
The whole is much more complicated than this. In fact, there's a fifty-page appendix that described the movements of the key populations at the end. If I have a criticism of this book, it's that there is too much text and not enough diagrams. It would be nice to have a great big map, along the lines of the ones National Geographic is known for, depicting all these moves and splits, rather than having to read comparatively cumbersome words about it.
That being said, this is a fascinating project and fascinating to read about.
on June 30, 2011
I think this book is a 3-star--too breezy and anecdotal for focused readers and somewhat technical for those who know what chromosomes and mitochondria are, but not much more. I downgraded it to two stars because Kindle editions haven't learned how to reproduce readable charts, maps, and tables (no color, either, of course)--and these are a huge part of the story. The captions to the figures are enormous--usually on the next Kindle page, and the keys and labels on the maps too tiny and fuzzy to even half discern (they don't blow up). Sometimes six maps or graphs will be part of one Figure--spread out to three pages--and the text reference is two pages ahead.
I guess I was happy to get it more cheaply on Kindle, but it is unusable. The General Index at the end isn't hyperlinked and has no page numbers of course.
The last third or so of the book is an appendix of haplotype descriptions, not keyed to the main text of the maps/charts. Disappointing overall. I doubt that I'll try anything remotely science-related in Kindle again.
on March 14, 2007
Ok, so there are still a lot of obvious differences that we use to identify individuals. Keep that in the back of your mind as you digest the idea that we're all mostly made up of the same genes and genetic heritage. How significant are those subtle and small differences?
Having followed this topic/effort from the periphery it wasn't as profound as it may be for most. Even so, it still boggles the mind at how much we can learn by looking within ourselves. Tying the external sciences together with the biological and statistical sciences of genographic project results in an interesting read.
About a third of the book is left to appendices, etc so it left a little to be desired when I got 3/4's of the way through only to discover that I was finished. Thumbing through the appendices was interesting, but I'd rather have had all those pages applied to more analysis or commentary and give me a web page link to go look up the appendices.
The book doesn't expand much on the idea of how the genetic Adam and Eve have different ages, a brief explanation and then moving on...
I also felt like the idea of the genegraphic project has made a lot of politically correct (racial?) compromises in order to get their samples. The flip side is that they did get their samples so political expediency may have been the call of the day. There is still a long, long way to go to gather enough genetic samples to fill in and bolster the genetic picture they've begun to piece together, but this book is certainly a nice primer on the concept of tracking our ancestral migrations through our genes.
If I could do it over again, then I'd buy this book again.
on November 24, 2009
This book served me well as a review of the ideas in Wells' "The Journey of Man", with the added benefit that it also references the findings from analyses of women's mitochondrial DNA, finding consistency between those findings and the findings based on men's Y chromosome. At the same time it is disappointing in that it offers no fresh insight into whether there was some genetic great leap forward in the last 50,000-75,000 years, corresponding to the cultural leap forward. Nor does it make me any more comfortable with the fact that Eve lived so much earlier than Adam. It suggests this may be due to the fact that the men with the most reproductive success can be responsible for a relatively large proportion of children (Genghiz Khan has a huge number of descendants), but that is not sufficient in my mind. At the very least, I would have expected some simulations to test various assumptions which might lead to the Eve/Adam conundrum.
The reader also needs to be aware that Wells, probably for simplicity, tends to make the most likely scenarios more certain than they are: letting in uncertainty only when you get to the the future areas of research, and the detailed discussion of the haplogroups.
Deep Ancestry: The Landmark DNA Quest to Decipher Our Distant Past by Spencer Wells
"Deep Ancestry" takes the reader on a scientific journey to the past with the goal of seeking our common ancestors of everyone alive today. With the focus predominately on reading DNA as a historical document and with the assistance of converging scientific knowledge, the author provides an overview of what we know today. While the topic is fascinating and the book is accessible the prose lacks panache. This mildly disappointing and brief 256-page book is composed of the following six chapters: 1. The Block, 2. Odine's Story: The Exception, 3. Margaret's Story: The Hearth, 4. Phil's Story: The Ice, 5. Virumandi's Story: The Beach, and 6. Julius's Story: The Cradle.
1. The fascinating topic of genetics in the hands of Dr. Wells.
2. Accessible book for the masses.
3. Good use of charts and diagrams.
4. Each chapter revolves around a human story and the author injects our knowledge of genetics as it applies to said story.
5. Many interesting tidbits interspersed throughout book.
6. The origins of the Genographic Project and its goals.
7. A brief history of migration. Well argumented theories backed by good science. Mapping the migrations.
8. Genetics at a basic level. The author does a good job of laying down the basics. He also provides a helpful glossary. The use of genetics to help us discover our past. "Our scientific goal is to explain global patterns of human diversity".
9. Human evolution...it does a species "good". "If we go back far enough, all human share a common ancestor at some point in the past".
10. The concept of race in proper scientific context.
11. Important topics discussed: the importance of the Y chromosome, haplogroups, mitochondrial DNA, mutations. These genetic topics form the foundation of this book.
12. The use of archeology to complement genetics.
13. The impact of climate to human evolution. "Cool" stuff.
14. One of the joys of this book is learning about different cultures: the Chukchi, Yakut, and the Hadzabe.
15. A look into Neanderthals.
16. The cause of genetic differences. "As humans moved through Eurasia, then, the forces of genetic drift, climatic adaption, and sexual selection combined to change their physical appearance".
17. The evolution of language. "The speech-enabling hyoid bones (the bone in your Adam's apple) found in Neanderthal remains attest to a throat structure that would allow spoken language..." Interesting.
18. The deepest lineages discussed. The level of variations.
19. The future of the Genographic Project.
20. Appendix describing haplogroups, a formal bibliography and web addresses.
1. The writing style is quite dry, it is standard science fare. Where's the passion? The love of discovery...
2. There are simply many books that cover this topic better. Please check my further suggestions.
In summary, this is an average book. Genetics is a fascinating topic and Dr. Wells is a gifted scientist and documentary filmmaker but for whatever reason the book lacked the panache and substance of his documentaries. There are many books that have covered this interesting topic better. That being stated, I commend Dr. Wells on his important work on the Genographic Project and wish him much success in his endeavors. Borrow this one from your local library.
Further suggestions: "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution" by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, "Written in Stone" by Brian Switek, "Why Evolution Is True" by Jerry A. Coyne, "The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution [Paperback]" by Sean B. Carroll, "Your Inner Fish" by Neil Shubin, "Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA" by Daniel J. Fairbanks, "Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul" by Kenneth R. Miller, and "Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution" by Nick Lane, "Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors" by Nicholas Wade, and "The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code" by Sam Kean. "DNA USA" by Bryan Sykes might be of interest but it is also dry. I have reviewed all of the aforementioned books look under the tag, "Book Shark Reviews".