Posted: December 10, 2001

Scientific Evidence Reveals We Are Family

Published on Monday, December 18, 2000 in the Chicago Tribune

by Salim Muwakkil

There is growing scientific evidence that humanity's parents were an African man and woman and their children who all lived on the African continent for millennia before leaving a little while ago to people the planet.

The Earth's people are so genetically interrelated, in fact, that some Europeans have more genes in common with Nigerians than do Nigerians with Kenyans; some Cambodians are closer genetically to Ethiopians than Ethiopians are to Angolans.

That revelation of global kinship is not just a blow to racists who base their argument on the fiction of race, but it also calls into question much of our contemporary understanding of racial identity. For Americans it is deeply vexing because issues of race are deeply enmeshed in this country's history; Africans were so dehumanized by the biased assumptions of race, Christians of the New World could practice slavery even while preaching brotherhood.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the very notion of race was created to justify exploitation, slavery and imperial conquest. But new knowledge revealed through the developing science of molecular genetics is slowly demolishing the mythology of race.

The latest salvo to the crumbling barricades of the white supremacists is a Dec. 7 article in the scientific journal Nature, which reports on a DNA study that concluded we all descended from a single ancestral group that lived in Africa about 170,000 years ago. The researchers, based at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, also suggest that modern humans spread across the globe from Africa in an exodus that took place around 50,000 years ago.

This finding was only the latest in a series of recent DNA studies that have traced humanity's roots to Africa. These revelations are being uncovered by new techniques that allow molecular examination of DNA. The genetic material in our chromosomes is a combination of genes from our parents. But each cell also contains energy-producing structures called mitochondria, and they house DNA that is independent of that found in chromosomes.

Mitochondrial DNA gives researchers a window into history because it is only transmitted along the female line, and there is no mixing between generations. The DNA sequence only changes as a result of random mutations or copying error. If these mutations appear at a fairly constant rate, then, scientists say, comparing the mitochondrial DNA of two populations reveals roughly when they had a common ancestor.

This is but one technique being used by DNA sleuths. There also is a small set of genes that ride the Y chromosome, a genetic component passed along only by men to their sons. With the coming completion of the human genome project (an effort to "map" all human genes), much more data will be available for molecular explorations of humanity's origins. The large scope of that looming opportunity attracted some of the worlds most knowledgeable experts to a conference on human origins held last month at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, one of the world's centers of genetic research.

According to a story on the conference in the Dec. 4 edition of Newsday, the study of the human genome has virtually confirmed the notion that "humanity was born in Africa, gradually evolving and then migrating through the middle East into Asia, spreading north into Europe, and finally into the Americas." Techniques of molecular genetics and evolutionary biology are expanding our knowledge of antiquity far more efficiently than have the traditional tools of fossil evidence, although archeological studies remains valuable. The convergence of molecular tools with the mathematical tools to help sequence genes has greatly increased the capacity of scientist to probe into humanity's genetic heritage.

Among the many revelations unearthed by these new techniques is the knowledge that there is more genetic diversity among Africans than there is among the rest of the world's people. A finding consistent with the notion that the Earth's first humans spent thousands of years on the continent of Africa before a small group left to populate the planet.

What changes can we expect when this knowledge of our genetic kinship begins to trickle into mainstream culture? Can we expect the dawning of a new era of brotherhood? Will the Ku Klux Klan extinguish its burning crosses and join Jesse Jackson to help keep hope alive? Will the Aryan Nation change its ways and join hands with their Jewish brothers at the Jewish Defense League? Will the Nazis straighten their swastikas into symbols of tolerance? Will e-mail respondents to this column stop regaling me with crude racist insults? Not bloody likely ...

But, hey, I've been wrong before. Once.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times.

Copyright 2000 Chicago Tribune

¤ What lies behind black domination of sport?
¤ Born to run
¤ Scientists: Racism a Social, Not Scientific Construct - There's No "Race" Gene and No Way to Genetically Test For Race.

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