Journey of Man


(Shown: a geneticist looking ridiculously intrepid.)

I’ve got another doc to recommend: Journey of Man, a geneticist’s journey to understand the paths of the first human migrations out of Africa tens of thousands of years ago. It’s narrated by geneticist Spencer Wells, who trekked the world taking blood from people in remote places, searching for genetic markers that would indicate that early humans had passed through certain areas as they left Africa to populate the world.

As the doc starts, we understand that the first evidence of humans outside of Africa appears in — of all places — Anne‘s homeworld of Australia, 6,000 miles away from Africa across the open ocean. How did the early humans get there? What route did they take, and would people along the way still hold genetic clues that some of the first humans passed through 400 centuries ago, leaving a few of their group behind to stay?

Wells goes all over the world to find out, to India and Kyrgyzstan and Africa, even to the freezing Siberian steppes of the nomadic Chuckchi people, the “cousins” of all truly native North Americans. According to Wells the Chuckchi stayed in Siberia while others in the same group kept going, eventually becoming the Inuit, Incas, Aztecs and American Indians.

The doc is — my favorite thing — thought provoking. We are all, as Wells says, essentially African. To me it’s a documentary about race, really, about how “race” is just a snapshot of the long unending action of evolution, a living creature’s adaptation to the climate where her people find themselves. We look the way we look so we can maximize our chances for survival, so our skins can help us make all the Vitamin D we need. We are tall or short depending on how cold it is where our people stay long; short people have less surface area through which to lose precious heat to a cold environment. Start out relatively tall and brown as the Cro-Magnon people did, and cold, it seems, will eventually make you short and fair.

All it takes is a few thousand years.

The doc made me laugh a little at the idea that some races are smarter than others. For that to be true, I guess there’d have to be some part of the Earth that presented no challenge to the people who lived there, some place where, for tens of thousands of years, food and water just magically appeared and no hungry predators prowled about looking for the tasty meat of hairless upright primates. For there to be a whole race of people who are all pretty stupid, stupidity would have to have been selected over tens of thousands of years as a genetic trait that better enabled survival.

Watch a doc, come up with all kinds of things to think about.

Highly recommended.

4 responses to “Journey of Man

  1. Not come across Wells, but Cavallli-Sforza is the original master of human population movements. If you can ignore the howling hordes who (deliberately?) misunderstand him, his work is well worth a look. May be a little dated now, but his work is the source from which many others draw ideas.

  2. HELLO MY FRIEND! That person worriedly checking your blog daily has been me. Long time, no post!

    Cavalli-Sforza appears in Journey of Man, and I gather that he is Wells’ mentor.

  3. Aha! That makes sense – and pleases me. The ex-evolutionary biologist in me regards C-S as a demigod :-)

    And yes, I have been slack on posting ::hangs head:: I shall get back to it soon, just as long as I can stay awake…

  4. I totally understand. I feel like I have not gotten anything done in a month. I am horribly behind in gardening, and not getting much work done. School would have killed me at this point.

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