Category Archives: Natural Selection

Discussion #17 – Ancestors, Kinship and Genomics

Why do we find our ancestors so fascinating? In many cultures, the story of our ancestors is incorporated into daily life and celebrated through ritual. In the modern world we often pride ourselves on our independence from history, our ability to cut free from tradition and remake ourselves in every generation. And yet, as shown by the popularity of ancestry.com and TV shows such as “Who Do You Think You Are”, family history matters. Their stories are our stories.

GGFShourov’s great-grandparents – note the colourization of the photos done by hand

Scientists recognize kin selection as an evolutionary strategy – we care more about those genetically closer to us, all the better to persist our genes. This may operate across time too – our great-grandparents share our genes too, and thus trigger the same feelings of kinship. Brian makes the point that listening to your parents is good evolutionary strategy, but listening to the stories of your extended family in time (i.e. your ancestors) may be even more beneficial.

59898047_072077d3bb_oEveryone is you.

Can we hack kinship selection to make the world a better place? We all share a lot more ancestry than we think. Take any two random people from anywhere in Europe and they share hundreds of ancestors from only 1,000 years ago – similarly for everyone in the world. If we could bring this shared ancestry into our collective consciousness, could it create empathy and love between strangers? Could we make the Golden Rule – “love thy neighbour as yourself” – closer and closer to a tautology?

backtothefuture2Dating your mother … ewww (screenshot from Back to the Future)

We finish with a segue and a controversial thought – were our ancestors happier because they expected less from life? What are the costs of social mobility and equality of opportunity? If we could meet one of our ancestors from centuries ago, what would he or she think of us? The further you go back in time, the less options people had. We assume that caused them pain, but maybe they adjusted to their lot and found contentment – no one told them that “you can be anything you want to be”.

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1ancestry.com.au is the popular Australian franchise of the global genealogy website.

2“Subliminal” by Leonard Mlodinow is a great read – Shourov refers to his phrase that our memories are more like “historical novelists and historians”.

3Brian refers to Ned Kelly, a famous bushranger (highway robber) in Victoria, Australia.

4“Mapping Human History” by Steve Olsen makes the point that we share far more genetic material with strangers than we acknowledge.

5My Big Fat Euopean Family makes the same point “Any two modern-day Europeans, even those living on opposite sides of the continent, may be more closely related than they might think”.

6Brian refers to this story – “The Egg” by Andy Weir.

7For those not from Australia – Richmond is a long suffering football club in the Australian Football League.

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