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About "Y Chromosome Adam" and "Mitochondrial Eve"

David Klinghoffer

Science and Human Origins.jpgMelissa Wilson Sayres, a UC Berkeley geneticist and new contributor to Panda’s Thumb, is winding up for a series of promised posts on the "Y Adam" and "mtDNA Eve" story that erupted after the publication of a report in Science ("Sequencing Y Chromosomes Resolves Discrepancy in Time to Common Ancestor of Males Versus Females").

The paper grabbed a bunch of media attention with its conclusion that the most recent common human male and female ancestors could have overlapped. Based on DNA analysis, the researchers place "Adam" and "Eve" as having lived within timeframes between 120,000-156,000 and 99,000-148,000 years ago respectively.

Dr. Sayres writes in a refreshingly perky and engaging style given the usual tone of the venue. She’s worried that the public is being harmed by the "extremely misleading" implication from media reporting and from the paper itself that what we have here are the actual Biblical Adam and Eve. Dr. Sayres says that she will follow up with further posts, elaborating on this concern and on the science.

But I think Biologic Institute’s Dr. Ann Gauger already said pretty much all that needs to be said in a brief remark on Biologic’s Facebook page, reacting to an article at Fox News ("Genetic ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ uncovered"):

A couple of things to note:

1. As the article says, these are not likely to be the same individuals as the Biblical Adam and Eve.

2. There is considerable range in the dates given.

3. Estimates change as the data improves.

4. Everything said on this subject should be taken as provisional at best.

Ann Gauger is a co-author of Science and Human Origins, which I would strongly encourage Dr. Sayres to read and comment on (she should let us know if she would like a free copy!). Dr. Gauger elaborated in a separate communication:

The only significance of this paper is as an indicator, a reminder if you will, that scientific conclusions are only as good as the data and assumptions that go into their calculation.

And it serves as a reminder that, at least as far as estimates based on human genetic variation are concerned, every result should be treated as provisional. The Fox News article is actually pretty fair in its coverage.

That’s it, folks. I would only add that I was struck by Melissa Wilson Sayres’s venture into reading the Bible:

If you are not familiar with it, in the Old Testament, one of the creation myths is that God created a man (Adam) and a woman (Eve), and all other humans are descended from this pair of first humans.??

Simple enough.

I can’t let that one go. "Simple"?! Very far from it. Trying to understand the first couple of chapters of Genesis, not to mention the rest of the book, is the study of a lifetime, plus. Media and scholarly coverage of the Bible is every bit as much subject to misleading simplification as is reporting about science.