Monday, October 3, 2011

On the train to Ottawa and reading Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life by Nick Lane

For all those who avidly follow DNA and genealogy, the book by Nick Lane published in 2005 by Oxford Press is a most interesting reading. Amazingly we have moved on from his thoughts of 2005 but only to refine it somewhat. His careful survey of  the literature over a fourty year period is a very instructive look at mitochondrial (and nuclear) DNA.

Although I will do a book report as well on the book in my other blog the book also deserves some thought on my genealogy blog. My own mitochondrial DNA appears to be located in a fairly small geographic area in the deep past with my matches being found as descendants of the 1772 migration from County Antrim in Northern Ireland of a large group of mostly Scots (planters from Scotland itself in the mid 1600s) to the Carolinas in America. A second group of matches remain in Ireland to this day and lately I have also discovered a small group (including my own possibly who are also in the Midlands) who trace their ancestry back from the Midlands to Cumberland and before that Argyllshire/Ayrshire in Scotland. Interestingly some of the people who migrated to the Carolinas were also from the Argyllshire/Ayrshire area of Scotland.

The book itself talks about the emergence and evolution of the Eucaryotic cell (as compared to evolution of bacteria). The various hypotheses for the eventual cell which in mammals contains a nucleus and cytoplasm containing mitochondria are detailed through the 321 pages of the book. Very interestingly he also discusses ageing as a result of mitochondrial changes and why he  believes that the answer to ageing lies in looking at mitochondrial changes and not the particular diseases of ageing themselves.

But what did I find so interesting that I absolutely couldn't put the book down except for the pressing needs of going to Homecoming at Western University in London Ontario and also visiting with one of my brothers? The science was heavy and the reading of the first 20 pages was a slow process as I relearned all of the biological terms but once past that I fairly flew along in reading the book. The science is heavy so be forewarned but the rewards of reading the book are great. Perhaps it helps me to understand evolution even better. Being a late comer to evolution; I tend to simply absorb as much information as I am able whenever a good book comes along on evolution. Although I am still a deeply religious person I do not find that incompatible with a belief in evolution. Although Nick Lane in his book clearly sets religion aside as being totally uninvolved in the creation of mankind he does allude to a cataclysmic event that resulted in the formation of a cell that was capable of moving on to an eventual evolution that gives us the intricate and diverse flora and fauna which we find on earth today. When you see the intricacy of life; I find it hard to accept that there isn't a God above all of us who was there at the beginning and will be there at the end of the Universe if such an end ever does occur.

But back to genealogy and my thoughts as a result of reading the book. I was surprised somewhat that he considered the lifetime of a surname to be but a few hundred years although the 400,000 surnames on the 1881 census of the UK is now only 270,000 names by the 21st century. A demise of 40% in just 120 years.

My own surname Blake (for my line) I can trace back to the late 1400s but it does end with my generation; none of my four brothers has a son and so the name ends with us in my great grandfather's line. I found his thoughts on male surnames to be most interesting actually. As well he talks about the references made in the literature to the demise of the male sex but has assurances that this is unlikely to happen. But interestingly, he too (along with a couple of other authors that I have read) sees the real definition of human descent as mitochondrial DNA since all the children of one female will inherit her mitochondrial DNA. Interesting!

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