By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
Mitochondrial Eve is a female biological ancestor of humans, aptly named the mother of all humans. It might seem very unusual or even impossible, but the DNA inside the mitochondria explains everything. There is one DNA that a human child inherits from the mother. Tracing this DNA back leads us to Mitochondrial Eve, who might have been the biblical Eve!
There are two kinds of DNA in human cells: nuclear DNA and the DNA in mitochondria. The first type is inherited from both parents. It holds the coding for proteins, which trigger the functions that make a person who they are. The second type, however, is inherited solely from the mother in the mitochondria. But then, what are mitochondria?
Mitochondria are a part of cells outside of the nucleus, where they produce the energy that the cell needs. The mitochondria provide what the nucleus needs to grow and split. The genetic material from the father is contained in the sperm and lands in the nucleus as well.
The new, unique DNA of the offspring is nuclear DNA. However, the DNA in the mitochondria is completely from the egg, i.e., the mother. Her mitochondrial DNA came from her mother, and hers from her mother, and hers from her mother, back to one single source. The shared female progenitor of all humans is called Mitochondrial Eve.
This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Origin of Mitochondrial Eve
Allan Wilson, the scientist who introduced Mitochondrial Eve, believed that she lived in east Africa about 2,50,000 years ago. For about 2,38,000 of these 2,50,000 years, all human ancestors lived the Stone Age life in small groups. They hunted, sought shelter against the same kind of elements, feared the same kinds of predators, had the same sorts of needs, and the same sorts of resources.
In the past 12,000, humans had a drastic change in the way of life. Agriculture, metallurgy, antibiotics, Hegelian epistemology, and reality television were all born in the past 12,000 years. Is it because humans suddenly got smarter?
Evolution works very slowly in complex matters, like the brain. Skin, hair, and eye color, or the height of people can change in evolutionary terms in 12,000 years, but the brain is too complex to change in such a short period.
The development of life happened so quickly not because we got smarter, but because we were put in a different environment. So, humans did not suddenly get smarter, they just found new opportunities. As 12,000 years is too short for brain changes, naturally, parts of the human mind and behavior are inherited from the Stone Age ancestors.
The Stone Age ancestors were not stupid, primitive cavemen. They were as clever, as ingenious, and as resourceful as today’s humans. Yet, they had a different environment and historical context that required different survival methods. Some of today’s psychological aspects are inherited from the 2,38,000 years before development.
Learn more about the origin of life.
Stone Age Concerns and Skills
Humans had very similar concerns in the 2,50,000 years, regardless of development: Giving birth, winning social support from band members, remembering the locations of edible plants, hitting animals with projectiles, breastfeeding, breathing, identifying objects, recognizing emotional expressions, protecting family members, maintaining mating relationships, self-defense, heart regulation, assessing the character of self and others, causing impregnation, acquiring language, maintaining friendships, and thwarting antagonists.
Evolutionary psychologists explain that many of the modern human’s skills and abilities in solving problems of these kinds are inherited from evolutionary ancestors. One example is reading emotions from people’s faces.
This ability is not taught by parents, learned in the environment, accidentally formed, or the result of any in-born features. The possible way is having inherited it from ancestors to sense sadness and mal-intention.
Learn more about race and reality.
Human Behavior in Terms of Evolution
Another example of inherited concerns is the scary statistics of the probability that a stepparent can kill a stepchild. Human childhood takes a very long time, and the parents need to invest a lot in an offspring. However, evolution makes people want to pass on their own genes through reproduction, not taking care of other people’s genes. Naturally, it is against evolution to invest in someone else’s child.
Altruism is also a result of evolution. Humans care about each other because caring is a fundamental feature of human psychology. Human ancestors lived in small groups and had to care for each other to increase their chances of survival. Hence, caring for those close to us has become a psychological feature.
Thus, one can say that it is not just having Mitochondrial Eve as the mother of all humans that gives us so many shared characteristics. The way our ancestors lived and their struggles were also an important factor.
Common Questions about Mitochondrial Eve
Mitochondrial Eve is the female ancestor of all human beings. The reason is that the mitochondrial DNA passes on only though mothers to children, and the father has no role in it.
Unlike the DNA that led to finding Mitochondrial Eve, the nuclear DNA is a result of contributions from both mother and father. It holds the coding for proteins, which trigger the functions that make us who we are.
The mitochondrial DNA comes from the mother. Tracing the line of mothers back, one can see that all humans have the same female progenitor, also known as Mitochondrial Eve.
It is against evolution and rules of survival to raise the offspring of another member of the society. Even though all humans are somehow related because of the Mitochondrial Eve, when the societies got complex, closeness to a person gained very high priority in caring for them.