Aug 10, 10
Read in August, 2010
I loved the first bit of this book, as he plotted his course through the science establishing the utility of mtDNA models of our maternal forebears, and the types of questions this might answer. The part I liked less well included the descriptions of those womens' lives. I agree with and love the concept, it's really a matter of execution. First, after such a great focus on the value of science, and even the frequently cited dictum that extraordinary claims require extraordinary data, Sykes seems to chuck the baby out with the bathwater in his imagining these women. There are few citations, few nods that might imply an understanding or study of the anthropological evidence underlying these claims and descriptions, and frequently makes what, as best I can tell, is the amateur mistake of conflating average ages of death with ages of actual death - the very low averages in hunter-gatherer populations reflect high rates of childhood death, a person surviving those diseases, if anything like more recently documented hunter-gatherers, might be expected to live well into old age, fit and healthy by modern standards. I may be wrong in that, though his incorporation of the story of the domestic dog seems to support the interpretation that he merely failed to review the science in these areas - for example, I believe the Science issue devoted to decoding the dog genome and anthropological data had already overturned the old assumption that domestic dogs derive from local wolf stock when this book was published (we now know that all domestic dogs, even in the New World, were first domesticated in what is now eastern China and spread out over the globe from there).
It's still a fun read, and the sections on the directions of his science and snippets about how the scientific community works and what scientific in-fighting looks like comprise the bulk of the book!