Your Very Extended Family

6 Aug

So, this is likely to be a big, vague, ‘PROFOUND’ post but I will try to pepper it with pictures and stuff so it hopefully won’t be too dull.

So for those of you who don’t know I’m a bit of a science-buff, in particular I am an evo-nerd (Yes, that is now a word… its my blog so shut up!). I’ve always been fascinated by natural selection, genes, the way in which animals and man are connected yada yada. I studied evolutionary anthropology and whilst I was no prodigy it felt like a good fit: It’s just something that always seemed hugely important, something that on some level I wanted to devote my life to. And by devoting my life I don’t mean studying evolution, I just don’t have the patience, but promoting it, teaching it and making it something fun accessible and relatable.

BUT I’ve had to ask myself does the world really need people who think evolution is cool and want to shout about it? Is that really contributing, is it useful? There are so many worthy occupations, things that the world could do with; Things like doctors and nurses, (good) politicians, teachers and environmentalists, social workers, psychiatrists, international aid workers not to mention plumbers, electricians, engineers and farmers. I’m not saying that the human race has to function like a giant ant colony, but on a personal level I need to feel like I’m doing something good and useful, I’m a bit utilitarian like that.


So the conclusion I have come to? YES I think evolution is important and YES I think it is relevant. Why? Well here goes: I think there is one massive point you can take from evolution as a concept, something that I feel could do the world of good (pun, lol!) and it is this: We are all so very closely connected, so much more closely connected than I think most people even realise. Genetics, evolution and anthropology really helps to give us some perspective on this. Let me elaborate.

In one of my first lectures on human genetics our class was asked how closely related everyone in the room was. We all looked around at each other, we were a class of roughly 10, all of us were caucasian that much was clear. Also as it turned out all of us were of European descent; largely British but we had a Dutch guy and an Italian girl. So clearly we must be reasonably closely related. With this in mind and the little we knew about human migration and origins, we went for what we though was a reasonably short time ago relatively speaking. I think we arrived at about 40,000 years ago. Our lecturer nodded, smiled to himself, and made a note. We were then asked to estimate when we though the ancestor for EVERY living person on the planet lived. This person would connect every single living person on the planet today…

Ok FREEZEFRAME first I want you to get an idea of the sheer enormity of this question. So let me put this in perspective. Take a look at the 11 people below.


Firstly an introduction, these people are (in no particular order) The Queen of England, Yu Yang the disqualified Chinese olympic badminton player, Nicholas Biwott the Kenyan billionaire, Kajol Mohammed a 9 year old snake charmer from Uttar Pradesh in India, Bill Gates, Angelina Jolie, the woman who served you at Starbucks last month, Terri Munro the 2008 Australian Big Brother winner, Stanzin Namgyal a Ladakhi tour operator, Andry Nirina Rajoelina the president of the high traditional authority of Madagascar, and Zeinia Zaatari the Lebanese born, feminist activist. Phew… now to add one more person into the mix. YOU.

Right, so these 12 people (that’s including you) come from almost every continent on the planet. You are a mix of men and women and you represent a host of age groups, religious backgrounds, political persuasions, ethnic classifications. Some of you are hugely rich, some incredibly poor and as far as I know none of you have ever met and probably never will. (You don’t even have any mutual facebook friends) So, with this in mind, how long ago do you think the person lived who linked all of you 12 people? …..A long time ago, am I right?

Now expand that further, massively further, to every single living man woman and child on the face of the Earth. As a class we imagined that it must be a really loooooong while ago. We had a rough idea that the human species evolved around 3 million years ago. So we predicted that the last time all of the disparate peoples of the world would be able to trace a line back to a single ancestor would be back in Africa, back when the human species was located in one place and not scattered accross the globe. Therefore the very earliest would be 50,000 years ago, around the latest time in which humans began to leave Africa.

Our lecturer made another note, smiled again, and then told us what the current estimate was…

How wrong we were…

The most recent genetic and computer modelling evidence puts the most recent ancestor for ALL living humans at just 5,000 years ago. In fact this is really a conservative estimate, the ancestor could easily have lived as recently as 2000 years ago. This is not back in the mists of Palaeolithic time, this is well within recorded history. At the most we’re talking Ancient Greece, or pre-Christian Rome.

This blew my mind. Every single person on this planet could be traced back to one person just 5,000 years ago. Also, 5,000 years ago is actually the LONGEST time between any two living people. This would also mean that on average most people would in fact be far more closely related to each other. For example Europeans, yup that includes all Americans, South Africans and Australians of European descent, you all share a relative roughly 1,000-1,500 years ago. (arguably Charlemagne, the horny bugger!).

Now I don’t know about you but I think that is AMAZING!

Right, I’m sorry if this post has become woefully overblown, flabby and long-winded. Let me return to the point, why does evolution and genetics matter? Why should we all know where we came from and how closely we are related? I believe that the knowledge that every person we come across, no matter what culture or ethnic background, is actually our brother or sister of (at the very very most) 310 generations ago. That knowledge I think, if instilled at an early age, can help to bridge the gap between cultures. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that wars will end and the world will become one big happy John Lennon song BUT I think if you can start to think of every living person as a relative, as a member of our own vast extended family then maybe it can at least help.


Maybe it will help inspire future leaders and activists to be humanists and to care a little bit more about each other. Also, going back even further, the fact that EVERY living thing shares a common ancestor means that every organism is also part of an even larger and even more extended family. So without going all ‘Ferngully’ I think teaching evolution and trying to make it something relevant and important is actually a worthwhile persuit.
Addendum: WOW, you made it this far? That was a lot of preachy happyclappy babble! Forgive me if that came across as condescending self-justifying rubbish, but you know what… I stand by it! So now for one final cheesy statement: Hey bro, hey sis, whoever you are take care, let’s try and make our great (x 309) grandfather/grandmother proud!


5 Responses to “Your Very Extended Family”

  1. Tom August 6, 2012 at 10:37 pm #

    Forgive me if I sound naif, I have relatively little knowledge in this area of study. How is it possible that all people living today could have a common ancestor who was alive 2,000 years ago? For instance, the Roman and Chinese civilisations were aware of each other’s existance and conducted trade with each other 2000 years ago; surely one would have to reach further back in time to find a point of divergence? Or do I have the wrong end of the stick?

    • commandpluszed August 6, 2012 at 11:43 pm #

      No worries Tom, I think you have the idea of ‘point of divergence ‘ confused with ‘most recent common ancestor’. It’s not a point of divergence where the common ancestor necessarily exists, that was the mistake we made as a class. You have to remember that people do not simply reproduce within their own communities…

      So lets take your example of the Japanese and the Romans. The two cultures diverged many thousands of years ago, well before 2000 years ago. But there has been admixture between these cultures genes much more recently (through men and woman reproducing outside their ethnic group) because of this the resulting modern communities are more recently linked. Therefore all world communities share such a recent ancestor because reproductive mixing between cultures and societies (accidentally and on purpose) happens far more frequently than one might have thought. Going back to your example, It only takes one Roman man to reproduce with one Japanese woman, and for her children to survive and reproduce within their community for this to happen.

      Does that make sense? If not let me know and I’ll see if I can explain it another way.

      Thanks for commenting 🙂

      • Anonymous August 7, 2012 at 10:04 am #

        Oh I See, so it means we have a common relation fairly recently, but not necessarily one in our direct line? How interesting!

    • Yelhsa May 14, 2017 at 11:29 am #

      Just in case, alwways be more than an arms length away from someone when calling them names. Else, best not to say anthiyng. Sometimes a look is all it takes.

    • Brookville, PA cheap auto insurnce June 7, 2017 at 10:33 am #

      I’m so glad you’re all right, Louise. Here in the Bluegrass we got some much needed rain thanks to Isaac, so I guess it wasn’t all bad. I’m just thankful that my prayers were answered and you’re all right and Paynter is doing better.

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