Seven Daughters of Eve

Seven Daughters of Eve is a fascinating book about mitochondrial DNA and how it’s passed from mother to daughter. Bryan Sykes, the author spends about three hundred pages explaining how he discovered this hereditary molecule and traced it to seven European women, the seven mothers of all Europeans. He goes as far as to name them:

Ursula
Xenia
Helena
Velda
Tara
Katrine
Jasmine

The book is very well written, compelling–almost a page turner, actually–and well thought out. It’s concise and easy to follow. He explains the science well enough for someone, such as myself, with no scientific knowledge or experience to understand.

I have but two small gripes. First, Sykes goes on and on about the scientific community and how badly behaved they are when it comes to new information. I’ve seen this in other books I’ve read regarding scientific breakthroughs (one I can think of off the top of my head is Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918: The Search for the Virus Which Caused It). It seems the author must relate to the reader how hard s/he worked on this issue and how, without fail, the scientific community bullied, ignored, threatened, ridiculed, mocked, and insulted the finding scientist, then the community eventually came around. It’s as if the scientific author must write about how immature her/his collegues are. I don’t find this compelling reading. I find it tedious and boring and, because I now expect it in all books of this genre, I just skip over those chapter. Certainly it makes me NOT want to become a scientist, knowing the community will throw temper tantrums. And it makes me ashamed of our scientific community. Can’t we all just get along?

But I digress…

The next thing I didn’t like about the book was the liberties he took explaining the seven mother’s lives. It seemed he was ascribing modern day emotions and lifestyles onto ancient women. Certainly they were fun fantasies, but that’s all they were: fantasies.

What I took away from the book is how genealogical lines can die out. I can see this happening in my own family. According to Sykes, the mtDNA is passed from mother to daughter, so if girls aren’t born the line dies out. In my family, my grandmother Muriel has two daughters: Nancy and Sandra. Both have one daughter: Nancy’s daughter is Deborah, who has three sons, thus the line has ended there. Sandra has one daughter, me, and I chose not to have children quite some time ago. Thus, our line has died out. This makes me a little sad to be honest. And for a brief time while I was reading the book, I felt like I should run off and get pregnant just to keep the line going.

Overall, it was a compelling book which explained much about human history. I very much liked his opinions on the impossibility of tracing the matriarchal lines in Western culture, how easily women are lost to history because of name changes, and how he opposes the patenting of the human genome and other plant and animal life.

Sykes has started a project called Oxford Ancestors. I sent away for the information to participate in the project, but it appears to be cost prohibitive for me. If I calculated the exchange right, it costs over $300 to trace your ancient ancestry. And there’s a part of me which feels like it’s a scam. I’m sure it isn’t, it just seems like a lot of money for a swab of my spit. And I’m terrified my saliva will end up patented or something.

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