158 of 163 people found the following review helpful
on November 14, 2002
The first 200 pages of this book exemplify the best of scientific journalism: the author describes a difficult subject matter clearly and succinctly for those who don`t know much about genetics, he presents each scientific investigation as if it were a detective story, and he conveys his excitement and enthusiasm for his work. Anyone who reads this book will come away with enough knowledge about mitochondrial DNA and prehistoric humans to understand today's headlines. Sykes explains how DNA testing identified the bodies of the Romanovs (laying to rest fanciful stories about how they survived the Russian Revolution), he rebuts Thor Heyerdahl's theories of migration, and he presents a convincing case that all humans of European ancestry are descended from seven women. (He also discusses the possible ancestries of non-Europeans, for which--so far--there is far less evidence.)
Given how compelling and fun the majority of the book is, nothing prepares the reader for what comes next: seven chapters containing fanciful and completely fictional reconstructions of each of the "daughters of Eve." Sykes admits he cannot even be sure of where or when each of these women may have lived, but he reconstructs little soap operas out of the nonexistent facts of their lives; these New Age-inspired outtakes from "Clan of the Cave Bear" do not succeed even as good fiction. "Xenia was born in the wind and snow of late spring." "This year Helena's father was going to try a spear-thrower and detachable point for the first time." "Velda had a strong artistic streak." "Tara had always been a fast runner and her father, fit though he was, was gaining on her slowly." (Tara even "invents" a boat.) He fabricates entire families and children, births and deaths, relationships and tragedies for each of these women, even though he knows for certain only that they each had two daughters. For the most part, I found these chapters embarrassing and unreadable.
If Sykes wanted to speculate for the reader where, when, and how each of these women lived, he certainly could have done so in a scientific framework and made it interesting. For example, he could have presented what we know from the archaeological record about their approximate eras and possible environs. (I would in particular like to know what evidence, if any, scientists have uncovered to imagine that prehistoric societies featured mostly monogamous relationships, which figure prominently in Sykes`s stories.)
Fortunately, Sykes turns his attention back to the science in the last two chapters. Overall, except for the fictional chapters, this is a first-rate survey. I do wish, however, that the author had added a bibliographical essay or general notes, both to support his arguments and to suggest where readers might turn, now that he's managed to enlighten us on the subject.
232 of 246 people found the following review helpful
Many scientists have things to say, but few know how to say them. The Stephen Hawkings (A Brief History of Time) and Brian Fagans (Famines, Floods and Emperors) of the world are rare creatures, indeed. In The Seven Daughters of Eve Bryan Sykes proves he belongs in that small but fortunate club.
This work is a remarkably well written narrative of Sykes' cutting edge research into the ancestry of modern humans using mitochondrial DNA. Unlike the DNA in the chromosomes of cell nuclei, which we inherit from both of our parents, mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from our mothers. It is also highly stable over time, which permits geneticists to determine with almost mathematical certainty the matrilineal genealogy of any human being on earth.
To students of history, prehistory, archaeology and linguistics the conclusions he draws from his research are absolutely stunning. First, he concludes that all modern humans (beyond reasonable mathematical certainty) are descended from a single woman - Sykes calls her, perhaps tongue in cheek, "Mitochondrial Eve." Second, every person on earth is, in turn, the descendant of one of only 33 women, who were the matrilineal descendants of "Eve." The book focuses on seven of these women who are the matrilineal ancestors of virtually every native European. These seven he calls, again perhaps tongue in cheek, "The Daughters of Eve." Third, the oldest of the "daughters of Eve" lived only about 45,000 years ago, the youngest within the past 10,000 years.
Some additional thoughts:
1. As with all knowledge, take this with a little grain of salt. Today's axioms in science may be disproved or reevaluated in a month, a year or a century. This is cutting edge stuff, and there are likely many surprises to come.
2. Sykes is at his descriptive best when dealing with the fascinating details of his own research and field work. His writing style breaks down somewhat when he attempts to write imaginative Clan of the Cave Bear-like chapters on the lives of the seven "daughters of Eve." I skipped heavily in this section.
3. I am a little surprised to sense a commercial-like ambience on Sykes' website, oxfordancestors.com. For a fee his organization will test your DNA and tell you which "daughter of Eve" you are descended from. This doesn't exactly lead me to doubt his research, but confirms my suspicions that Sykes has many more skills as a writer and pitchman than most of his colleagues.
4. Don't be misled by the title - this is not your standard Sunday School or Bible Class religious tract. Those who believe that every word of the Bible - through all of the twists and turns of 3,000 years of copying, editing, compiling and translation - is infallible, will perhaps find their faith challenged. On the other hand, those who are not Bible literalists may find some edification here, as well.
183 of 202 people found the following review helpful
on April 22, 2002
Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes, author of The Seven Daughters Of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry just might have what it takes to become another Carl Sagan or Louis Leakey - that rare scientist with both the scientific skills and genius for self-promotion needed to make himself a household name.
Sykes has many talents, as well as some useful vices. As this book shows, he's a fine popular science writer. He also has a sizable ego and a flair for self-dramatization that annoys other scientists but appeals to the public. He often tends to portray himself in The Seven Daughters as a Galileo single-handedly doing battle with the benighted masses of anthropologists and geneticists like Stanford's distinguished L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, who, according to Sykes' not exactly neutral account, just didn't want to admit the importance of his mitochondrial DNA research.
Most importantly, though, Sykes has grasped a simple fact about population genetics that resounds emotionally with the average person, yet has largely eluded most learned commentators. Namely, genes are the stuff of genealogy. Each individual's genes are descended from some people, but not from some other people. Thus, Sykes discovered, people often feel a sense of family pride and loyalty to others, living and dead, with whom they share some DNA.
Further, if you read between his lines, you can readily understand why - despite all the propaganda that "race does not exist" - humanity will never get over its obsession with race: Race is Family. A racial group is an extremely extended family that is inbred to some degree.
In fact, people are so interested in tracing their family connections that Sykes has gone into business for himself. He started a for-profit firm OxfordAncestors.com. "Discover your ancestral mother," he advertises. For [money] he'll trace your DNA (actually, a particular set of your specialized mitochondrial DNA) back to one of the seven Stone Age women who are the ancestors in the all-female line of 95% of all white Europeans.
Sykes calls these "the Seven Daughters of Eve." (He's piggybacking on the much-publicized concept of the primordial "Mitochondrial Eve" from whom all women are supposedly descended.) One of his sales slogans: "Which daughter was your ancestor?"
(If you happen to be from a non-European race, well, Sykes has got 27 other matrilineal clans sketchily worked out for you. Still, the Eurocentric, cashocentric Sykes tends to treat those non-Caucasian ancient mothers as if they were The Twenty-Seven Stepdaughters of Eve.)
Some scientists are appalled by Sykes' shameless entrepreneurialism. Myself, I think that the self-effacing saints like the late William D. Hamilton (the greatest theoretical biologist of the 20th Century and the genius behind more famous biologists like Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins) and the attention-seekers like Sykes both serve useful purposes in advancing science.
The key to Sykes' business is that within a particular set of stable "junk DNA" in the mitochondrial code, mutations happen every 10,000 years on average. Last spring, in "Darwinophobia I," I explained why junk genes are so useful to geneticists studying individual or racial genealogies, yet so useless to the bodies they inhabit since they don't do anything. But these genes' uselessness means they aren't subject to Darwinian selection. So they are passed on unchanged, except by random mutations.
Of course, precisely because population geneticists like Sykes and Cavalli-Sforza study only useless genes that don't do anything, they don't have anything credible to say about useful genes, like the ones that influence IQ. To learn about nonjunk genes, you need to read behavior geneticists like twin expert Nancy Segal or intelligence gene finder Robert Plomin.
Without going into the technical details, a study of mitochondrial DNA allows you to track the line of purely female descent in your genealogy. This is the opposite of the "paternal line of descent" by which your surname came down to you. (The male line can be tracked through tests of the Y chromosome.) The maternal line is your mother's mother's mother's etc. - all female, all the way back.
You can visualize your maternal line this way. Mentally lay out your family tree, with you at the bottom. Place your father above you to the left and your mother above you to the right. Fill in all your grandparents, great-grandparents, and so forth, always keeping the males to the left in each pair. Then, the matrilineal line of descent is the extreme right edge of your family tree (just as your last name comes from the extreme left edge).
Sykes has put together a chart of these functionally trivial but genealogically interesting mutations that allow him to state, for example, that the woman who claimed to be Anastasia Romanov (who was portrayed by Ingrid Bergman in her Oscar-winning performance in Anastasia) could not have been the daughter of the Czarina murdered by Lenin.
(Of course, considering how many surviving members of the Romanov extended family she fooled into thinking she was Anastasia, the possibility remains that she might still have been some kind of biological relative of the Romanovs. Perhaps she was fathered illegitimately by a member of the Czar's side of the family. Neither Sykes' matrilineal test, nor a Y chromosome patrilineal test can rule that out.)
Sykes has identified seven mitochondrial mutations of particular genealogical importance. Logically, for each mutation there existed an individual woman.
Who were these seven women? They weren't the only women alive at the time. They probably weren't even the first ones to be born with their distinctive mutant junk gene. Each of the seven daughters is simply the first after the appearance of their mutation to have a daughter who had a daughter who had a daughter and on and on in an unbroken line of female descent down to the present day. They are special only in the rather arbitrary genealogical sense of each being on the extreme right edge of the family tree of tens of millions of modern Europeans.
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Bryan Sykes's book, THE SEVEN DAUGHTERS OF EVE, seems to strike nothing but controversy. Both his defenders and his detractors accuse him of a variety of things and, for the most part, they are all true. Is his book well written? Yes, it is. I was extremely entertained while reading this book and I do not think, as some have argued, that he fails to explain the science correctly. There is nothing that is particularly challenging in this book and I believe that you can finish it in a couple of sittings if you wanted. However, on the flip side, the book was a little too "pop-science" for my tastes. I would have enjoyed more science and I think, if nothing else, we deserve to have his opponents' views fleshed out in more detail. Sykes paints his opponents as if they were ridiculous individuals, holding ridiculously unfounded views. As it stands now, Sykes pulls you along under his lab coat, making you his very special cohort as he battles the ignorant world of unbelievers (also known as the rest of the scientific community). The truth is, having read some of the secondary literature on this relatively new science, that there is still quite a controversy surrounding the issue of whether mitochondrial DNA can provide us the kind of "rough and ready" answers that Sykes claims it does. However, you would never know there was any remaining controversy after reading this book.
Like many readers, I too got tired of hearing about Sykes's exploits. In his own mind, he simply cannot be wrong and he views the rest of the scientific community as an unethical body lying in wait to tear down his theories. THE SEVEN DAUGHTERS OF EVE also lacks a really coherent storyline tying the work together. Sykes's essentially provides us with a chronological story about his journey into this new field of research, but his storyline jumps around and flashes from event to event. Moreover, the final seven chapters on each of the "seven daughters" are horrendous. These chapters are simply awful and give a false impression of realism. In these chapters, Sykes imagines what the lives must have been like for each of our genetic parents. Of course, Sykes was not there and no one has any sense of what this ancient, pre-recorded history must have been like. But that does not seem to stop Sykes from sewing a line of bull for each one. Finally, if you visit his website, you might be turned off (as I was) by the moneymaking machine that he has created around his work. I guess you can't really fault a guy for making a buck off of his research, but it still seems a bit tacky.
In the end, I would recommend reading THE SEVEN DAUGHTERS OF EVE because it is an interesting premise: What if we can trace our genetic roots back thousands of years in order to better understand our roots? Sykes will keep you engaged throughout his solo journey and you will learn a lot in the process. Just skip the seven chapters near the end in which Sykes imagines the lives of each of the "seven daughters."
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2005
Three-quarters of this book (ignoring, for the moment, the excruciating chapters 15 to 21) constitute a brilliant account of the use of mitochondrial DNA for tracing the origins of humanity. Now that it has become relatively easy to read the sequences of bases in DNA it might seem a simple matter to use them to establish family relationships and trace ancestry. Unfortunately, however, there is a huge complication, known as recombination, that makes this impossible for the overwhelming majority of the DNA in the human organism. Nearly all of our DNA comes in two nearly identical copies, and although half comes from each parent, the details get thoroughly mixed up in each generation: it is as if, in copying out a book from beginning to end one were to use two slightly different versions as a source, copying alternately from them, and switching between them at unpredictable moments.
Fortunately, there are two small exceptions to this generalization: every cell in the body contains small "organelles" known as mitochondria that are responsible for energy production. These contain their own DNA that is maintained separately from the rest, and it is passed exclusively through the maternal line, so even though nearly all the DNA that an individual possesses comes equally from the two parents, the mitochondrial DNA comes only from the mother. It does not gets mixed up at each generation, and apart from rare mutations it is passed unchanged for many generations. The other exception is the Y chromosome, which males possess and females do not: a small part of it does undergo recombination with DNA from the X chromosome, but most of it does not, and is passed unchanged for many generations from father to son.
Brian Sykes has mainly worked with mitochondrial DNA, and most of his book is devoted to it, though he does also mention the corresponding results with Y chromosomes. His major theme is that about 95% of the native population of Europe has mitochondrial DNA that falls into seven easily distinguishable sequences, and he interprets this to mean that almost every native European is descended from one of seven different women. In the course of thousands of years mutations do accumulate, slowly enough not to obliterate the ancestral signature, but fast enough to allow use of the dispersion of sequences for estimating when the seven women lived -- up to 45000 years ago. This date is recent enough to resolve a long-standing controversy about the relationship of modern humans to the Neanderthals, because it agrees with the date when modern Cro-Magnon skulls appear in the fossil record, and is much too recent to support any Neanderthal ancestry in the modern population. At least so far as mitochondria (and hence the female line of descent) are concerned, the Neanderthal people simply disappeared, leaving no modern descendants; they were not simply absorbed into a mixed population.
This is the main theme, but the book also contains a number of interesting sidelines, such as the use of mitochondrial DNA to show that a group of bodies in shallow graves found near Yekatinerinburg in 1991 were almost certainly those of the last Tsar and his family. Another is demonstration that the Polynesians must have originated in Asia -- probably in Taiwan -- and not, as some anthropologists have maintained, in America.
The book is also interesting as an illustration of how real scientists go about their work -- often without a clear vision of where they are going, and sometimes with major new directions coming from pure accidents. Sykes's investigation of Polynesian mitochondria started in just this way: what was supposed have been a brief stop-over in the Pacific island of Rarotonga was converted into a stay of several weeks after he crashed his rented motor-cycle into a tree and fractured his shoulder. During his enforced stay on the island it occurred to him on an impulse to collect some blood samples from the local hospital, and so on from there.
Albert Einstein said that when explaining science everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. The first time that Sykes referred to the mitochondrial DNA as "a gene" it could be taken as a piece of poor editing, but when he said it again, very plainly -- "whatever way you look at it, mitochondrial DNA is only one gene" -- it was clear that he had transgressed Einstein's line. Two pages later he makes the same error in relation to the Y chromosome, though at least there he includes a half-hearted recognition that it is not true. Fortunately, however, such lapses are relatively rare.
The title of the book comes from the seven women deduced to be ancestors of 95% of native Europeans, and it refers to a series of seven dreadful chapters near the end of the book in which Sykes writes fictional biographies of these women. What on earth possessed him to write these stories? Did he wish he had become a writer of popular romantic fiction rather than a scientist? Who knows, but the result is embarrassingly awful. Without these chapters the book would be worth five stars; and even with them a case for five stars could be made, as you lose nothing of importance if you just skip straight from chapter 14 to chapter 22.
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on August 26, 2001
Genetic research is where all the science headlines are being made. If you are one of the scientists making the headlines - good for you. If you are able to write well, and can make your subject accessible to the layman, and do so with humor, all the better. So it is with Bryan Sykes and THE SEVEN DAUGHTERS OF EVE. This is the sort of book that probably drives equally qualified, but dry-boring-subject and less-literary-talented scientists green with envy. This book is a genuine can't-put-down science thriller. The substantive subject of this book is the genetic ancestry of Europeans, specifically Sykes' contention that 90% of Europeans can trace their maternal ancestry back some tens of thousands of years to one of seven women, the most ancient of which lived 45,000 years ago. In taking us on a trip backwards to meet our great-grandmothers (thousands of times removed) he reveals some very interesting tidbits such as: > The ancient Iceman found in a glacier in the Italian Alps in 1991 was proven to be of European origin, and no hoax. Sykes also made the first of his headlines by stating that Iceman had relatives currently alive and well in England. He produced one of these persons - Marie X - for the press, and was able to prove from his large database of DNA, that there was an "unbroken genetic link between Marie and the Iceman's mother stretching back over 5,000 years and faithfully recorded in the DNA". > Sykes has established almost to a certainty, that the bones found outside Ekaterinburg, Russia, in 1991 are in fact those of Czar Nicholas II and his family. > He also says that Polynesians came from Southeast Asia, rather than from South America. This not only disproves a long held belief, but because this journey is against the prevailing currents and winds, makes them some of history's best sailors. Interesting as they are, these are merely samples of what his DNA work is capable of. The real interest in the book is in his research on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and how its unique characteristics assist in determining ancestry. Mitochondria are organelles within cells that provide energy to the cell; sometimes referred to as "the fire within" they possess their own DNA - mtDNA. Unlike chromosomal DNA, mtDNA is not "mixed" (half from the male and half from the female) during reproduction; mtDNA is passed down from the mother only and passed on unchanged - with one exception - at certain points in time mtDNA mutates. These harmless mutations are not random but occur at specific and infrequent intervals (once every 10,000 years). They are passed down through suceeding generations and act as genetic markers of common ancestry. By looking at differences between mtDNA in living persons (Sykes has a vast collection, and is constantly looking to add to it; readers can send samples to the address provided...or Not!) and comparing it to samples from archaelogical specimens, Sykes is able to trace ancestry. This is what he did in order to come up with both the seven daughters (representing seven clans of European ancestry) and Eve herself (she came from a small human population group in Africa). This book touches on all the current topics in human origins and genetics. The debates about whether genetic variation is greater within a group or between groups; the genetic basis for races; the "Out of Africa" theory on the origins of man. If any of this is of interest to you, Sykes is more than willing to share his opinions with you, and he does so in a lucid and very readable manner.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on September 25, 2005
I can see why some people object to Sykes' book, "Seven Daughters of Eve". Towards the end he flows into what can only be described as a mini 'clan of the cave bear' - with 7 novellettes being written. Yet this is a small part of what is overall an enormously readable and fascinating book.
This book is a dual journey - the story of his research into Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) , which starts with the discovery of the iceman in the alps in 1991 and the parallel journey in which he traces some of the genetic lines of various peoples through the world, proving - and at times disproving - prevailing theories.
Essentially the discovery that mtDNA was passed down directly from mother to her children through history meant that it was relatively straightforward issue to trace back genetic lines to the dawn of civillisation, and indeed as Sykes does at the end of the book, to the dawn of man - or in this case woman. It was this item of our genetic make-up which his research has helped to pinpoint mysteries such as the identity of the last Tsar of Russia and the mysterious woman, Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the youngest of his daugthers, Anastacia.
MtDNA is unique - it is not actually part of the genetic building blocks of the human,therefore is not part of the exchange of genetic material at fertillization. however it is subject to mutation - the approximate rate of one mutation every 1000 years. His research into this matter allowed him to first trace the polynesian migration from its source in China through various islands finally to New Zealand, Easter Island and even Hawaii. This proof helped back up a plethora of physical resarch on these migrations, but disproved Thor Heyerdahl's theorys.
Sykes research of what happened in genetic migration in Europe is a bit more confusing. It was also more controversial as it went against the established theorys. Sykes mtDNA research indicated that the hunter/gatherers of Europe had not been overwhelmed by the Eastern Farmers who had been thought to have 'flooded' Europe. MtDNA indicated that some 80% of Europeans were descended from those original hunter/gatherers. The invasion, had been more of a gentle mixing of cultures and ways. However, simply because his research showed this didn't mean it was universally accepted, and for some time he had to provide enormous extra effort to back up his claims. His relentless pursuit of different means to do this is inspiring.
The book is generally in layman's terms and is easy to follow - there were occassions when it completely lost me (the model they used to analyse the spread of mtDNA in modern day europe was completely over my head - a square - apparently, but I couldn't see how it worked). Also the magnifying factor for making DNA replicate faster was not easy to understand. Luckily, neither is necessary to understand in detail, so much as in theory. However mostly the process' and the paths he followed were easy to comprehend.
Sykes writes well, which makes this a good read. The highs and the lows of his research, how he and his team thought up new processes, supported their research and finally became the accepted norm.
I also really enjoyed the last part which went into fiction of what these first 7 clan mothers lived like. He clearly has used archaeological research into these periods and probably finds, to colour these accounts. I felt they brought out just how life was in their time. What they ate, how they lived, the dangers, the possible culture, their life and their deaths. These 7 women did not all live at the same time, and all 7 represent a differnt region. They were spread from 45,000 to 20,000 years ago and from 7 different places in Europe. However it is there mtDNA which now dominates Europe - almost all the population is descended through their mother from one of these 7 women.
Highly recommended reading, an approachable, lively scientific read for the non-scientist
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on July 12, 2001
This is a profound book about the window to our genealogy that modern DNA has opened. It tells of the seven ancient maternal ancestors of European-based people that have been discovered via DNA research. Written in a very personal style even though the technical detail gets heavy at times. But the implications are fantastic for the human race. In fact, the concept of "race" is blown to bits. A great book to read anywhere, anytime.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on May 24, 2003
Bryan Sykes in THE SEVEN DAUGHTERS OF EVE tackles the ever interesting question about the origins of humanity. Where did we of the 20th Century come from? Sykes likes to use decision trees to show how one generation leads to the next. He acknowledges that since documented geneological records are notoriously unreliable, to date human evolution through the ages, a more reliable indicator was needed. In mitochondrial DNA, Sykes has found just such a barometer. Most of the early chapters are full of college level genetics that indicate that human beings can unerringly trace their lineage even over many milennia through the use of mitochondrial DNA that is passed only from mother to daughter. Sykes asserts that the majority of Europeans owe their ancestry to seven clearly identified females who lived in Europe at various times ranging from 50,000 years to 10,000 years ago. His evidence is compelling. Sykes strays from hard evidence to fiction, however, as he attempts to recreate a fanciful 'history' for each woman whom he assigns names like Ursula, Helena, and Katrine. These stories are nonsense, of course, and detract from his core thesis. Yet, his masterful explanation of the mechanics of DNA, while occasionally dragging, still point out that the physical differences between human beings are to be seen as more falsely dramatic than truly individuating. Sykes suggests that we today who are the descendants of these Eves ought to acknowledge our kinships rather than squabble over our dissimilarities.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2004
If you are interested in the origin of human genetics, or are just an armchair amateur scientist, you will find this book reads almost like a "thriller." I had trouble putting the book down, and read it in two days. Sykes is one of the cutting-edge geneticists, yet is able to explain all concepts easily and clearly for the layman. As a teacher, I really appreciate this.
This book is partly the story of the genetic discoveries, and partly Bryan' story of how those discoveries came about through a series of chances in his life. So there is both science, and human interest. Sykes also explains historical assumptions that other scientists have made, and why those did not work out, previous to the new discoveries.
There was only one part of the book I did not enjoy as much, which were the chapters devoted to the hypothetical lives of the various seven "clan-mothers." This part is not science, merely conjecture. However, I can see why he included them-to give a CONCRETE example of how their lives would have existed, and how they were just some of the many women living at that time. However, the other women's mitochondrial DNA, for reasons clearly explained, did not get passed down to Europeans.
The book focuses primarily on both the complicated story of European ancestry, and the solution of the previous mystery of South Pacific ancestry. But the best thing about the book is that he winds up by providing a discussion of the ancestry of the whole world, and gives a detailed map about how, where, and when all of those branches came out of Africa-as well as mapping the branches we know from Africa today.