Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Eve and Epiphanies

Daniel Dennett tells the story of Mitochondrial Eve. In a fun feminist twist on the western habit of taking the guy's surname, our genetic story is carried down by the ladies. It's an argument for keeping the naming convention - names morph over time as people get spelling wrong. The genetic paper trail is for keeps. I understand there is an equivalent Y-chromosomal Adam we are all descended from, but in Biological rock-paper-scissors Mitochondrial DNA is more traceable than Y-chromosomes. Hard core biology friends, please point out if I am wrong.


Everyone has a mom. Some women have kids. Some don't. So if you step back one generation, there are less moms than kids. Step back again and there are even less. Carry on doing this enough times and you get to one single common Great (to the power of lots) Grandmother. The most accepted theory is that this lady came from Africa and probably lived about 100K-200K years ago. Yup, we are all African, we are all family, and borders are stupid.

The interesting thing is that she wouldn't have been alone, and she wouldn't have been particularly 'special'. Along the way bad things happen that can wipe out populations. Part of surviving is being in the right place at the right time. We know this Mitochondrial Eve had at least two daughters. If she had had one, the daughter would have been Eve, not her. Like male surnames, all her female contemporaries failed to produce a single, unbroken line. That isn't a lack of skill in a 50/50 world. Think of family names that 'die' because there is no boy child. As we spread out, and the got wiped out, the various bottlenecks brought the family together. 

There is an analogy between Genes and Memes. A Meme is an idea or behaviour that spreads among people in a similar way to how genes spread. Like Eve, a particular idea may end up being very important later on. The source of future ideas. Like Eve, we may only know this later on. At the time, the idea may not seem that special.

It is nice to think we will have Epiphanies that will change our whole worldview. We know there are lots of places we are wrong, but by definition we don't know that we are wrong. If we knew we were wrong, we would change our mind. The interesting thing is that our ideas develop slowly over time. We may only realise we have had an epiphany after the drip drip drip of several ideas. Day to day we may not even notice the change.

What we do know is we learn, we move, and we remember. Somewhere inside all that are the important bits that matter. The bits that will survive. The Epiphanies.

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