NB caution !! ... we only keep these notes on our interweb so we don't lose them ... a few bits of prosaic prose for a bit of fun!
... so just remember any resemblance to relevance may be coincidental?
Play the song first and get the flavour!
The Galaxy DNA Song Eric Idle Monty Python
life gets you down Mrs Brown
and things seem sad & tough
and people are useless or obnoxious or daft
and you feel you've had quite enough ---
Just remember you’re a tiny little person on a planet
In a universe expanding and immense
That life began evolving and dissolving and resolving
In the deep primordial oceans by the hydrothermal vents
Our earth which had its birth almost five billion year ago
From out of a collapsing cloud of gas
Grew life which was quite new
And eventually led to you
In only three point five billion years or less.
Life is quite strange
Life is quite weird,
Life is really quite odd
Life from a star is far more bizarre,
Than an old bearded man they call God
So gaze at the sky, and start asking why
You’re even here on this ball
For though life is fraught
The odds are so short
You’re lucky to be here at all…
Deoxyribonucleic acid helps us replicate
And randomly mutate from day to day.
We left the seas and climbed the trees
And our biologies
Continued to evolve through DNA.
We’re 98.9 per cent the same as chimpanzees
Whose trees we left three million years ago
To wander swapping genes out of Africa which means
We’re related to everyone we know.
Standing on a planet which is spinning round a star
One of just a billion trillion suns
In a Universe that’s ninety billion light years side to side
Wondering where the heck it all came from.
You’ve a tiny little blink of life to try and understand
What on earth is really going on
In biology and chemistry
Which made you you and made me me
But don’t ask me I only wrote the song.
So on June 23rd 2018, inspired by our mate John Rees, we handed over 50 squids for an 'Ancestry.com' DNA analysis and managed, without too much trouble, to salivate into a test tube and post it off. We were enthralled by the prospect of breaking through the fog that had engulfed our efforts to detail the Birchall Family Tree. We were also aware that this enthusiasm had generated a thirst for a bit of understanding about how the hell all this DNA ackamarackus actually worked? Wot did it all actually mean? ... could this black art answer the lurking question at the back of the minds of our adversaries; were all our Neanderthal traits kosher?
Yellowing piles of ancient parchments could be interesting for family historians but we soon realised that most of the interesting happenings were never written down! ... and even if a few of the bits were writ, most of them didn't survive the ravages of time ... and then the words themselves always seemed to mean different things to different folk at different times in different places. And then some wag also pointed out that, in any case, the decaying parchments were often works of fiction ... or worse still they were deliberate fake noos sometimes rewritten later on a whim to confuse. Occasionally even testimony under oath in the law courts was subject to obfuscation. How were we to believe what? And more, there was the intriguing question of wot really happened to the folks who couldn't write? And more more ... wot happened to folks who could write before they could write? ... Family History all seemed to be like an infernal quagmire ... we very soon became very lost.
Exhausted after bashing through endless brick walls brick by brick our own tree had arrived (or ended?) at the mysterious Johannis Berchall of Winwick in 1565 and the unlikely William Gandy of Frandley in 1542 ... less than 500 years and just 14 generations and the paper trail had petered out ... the 'orrible truth dawned ... just as things were getting interesting we had run out of parchments to decipher!
Wot had we learned? Not a lot!
We were particularly interested in the Scientific & Industrial Revolutions as they seemed to be unprecedented historical upheavals which dramatically changed ancient rural poverty into the start of modern plenty ... we knew that the Birchalls must have become embroiled in the quarrels, plagues & famines of rural insufficiency and also participated in the acquisition of know how necessary for the production of agricultural surpluses ... otherwise there would have been no urban trek to the Congleton Mills and the learning of new skills for trade? But, distressingly, there was little detail of the how, who, where or when? ... the Birchall hard evidence was elusive.
Sir Winston helped to motivate our imagination -
'History with its flickering light stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echos and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days' ...
But now the scientists were adamant; the Deoxyribo Nucleic Acid story was different ... Biological History didn't lie and science went deep into the detail of deep time. Truth could not be denied ... was this why the French banned DNA analysis ... hoping for nonexistent 'privacy'? In any case the only folk we knew who were scared of the truth were criminals? .. others just appeared to be trying to hide their blemishes ... blemishes which made them different ... fearfully exploitable to 'get clicks' or 'go viral' ... but also excitingly endearing ... the feedstock of natural selection?
Preliminaries ... from a few biologists who claim to understand it all ... and a 2018 Christmas pressie from Daniel; 'Becoming Human' ...
Let's get a couple of things straight from the start -
folk were not descended from Chimps ... however they did share a common ancestor with the Chimps ... that said a lot about Chimps ... but wot did it say about us great apes?
folk were descended from replicating molecules ... there was zilch evidence of anything supernatural ... that said a lot about the old bearded man in the sky ... but wot did it say about the 'miracle' of the Boeing 747?
Enter science; our route to 'know how' - observation, mathematical theory, testable hypotheses, experimental validation and peer review ... science was our current best effort at understanding, not the best best just better than the alternatives that had been tried from time to time ... science was not just another opinion. Science was new 'know how' which 'proved' to 'work' and was unknown to most Bishops, Princes, Generals & Bureaucrats ... you could con all the folk some of the time and some of the folk all of the time but you could never con all the folk all the time. Science emerged from a cooperative team of many peers ... an experiment in Scunthorpe which was repeated in the Antipodes 17½ nights later with the same peer reviewed result was meaningful evidence.
Science did not reveal a guaranteed truth but it did erode ignorance.
The scientists suggested that long after replicating molecules emerged from energy gradients in an expanding universe, the diversity of life in the Eukaryotic Domain exploded as 'King Philip Came Over From Great Spain' ... all such mnemonic nonsense could be clarified ... in other words ... or put simply ... as evolution meandered through the aeons, there were ongoing happenings in the Animal Kingdom, in the Vertebrate Phylum, in the Mammal Class, in the Primate Order, in the Hominin Family, in the Homo Genus and in the Sapiens Species. But all these strange activities were a tad more complicated than seemed reasonable from the simple linear biological taxonomy in the textbooks. Were we over simplifying to comprehend? Some said we had to stop trying to line up our Birchall lineage in our heads; a separate chronology just didn't never ever exist. Folk were far too horny & far too curious a species to remain confined to separate niches. There was no 'march of progress', no 'missing links', just lots & lots of different, agonising, gropes for survival.
Around 12 million years ago there were many mysterious African apes, one family of these apes, the Hominids, evolved into Homo Sapiens, a single specialised species, eventually able to walk on the moon. This 'giant leap for mankind' was an outcome of a complex, messy diverse mishmash of lengthy co-existence, extensive interbreeding and relentless curiosity about the colour of the grass in the niche on the other side of the hedge ... as our ancestral apes struggled through adaptations to changing environments ... here's a list -
arboreal & savannah bipedalism, complex brains, opposing digits, stone tools, projectile weapons, concentrated protein hunting, productive team work, helpful fire, cooked meat, co-operative weapons, conscious empathies, meaningful language, experimental imitation, strategic imaginations, skills & specialisations, trade, cultures & scale, using tools to make other tools, body adornment & painting, burial of the dead, cave art & tuneful music, shelters, sewing, pots & pans, seafaring, laws replacing violence, settlements, cultivation & husbandry, timekeeping, writing ... ongoing adventures out of Africa to far corners and back, trade with strangers, trade in ideas ...
The big 'Sapiens' breakthroughs ... more co-operation ... more synergies of specialisation & scale ... more learning resulted in better technologies & better social organisation -
70,000 years ago - cognitive explosions speeds up cultural evolution and economies of scale from shared myths
10,000 year ago - agricultural revolutions and global cities intensified social interactions
500 years ago - scientific methodology fired up the growth of 'know how'
So where were we? A lot of stuff happened in Africa but a lot of mixing happened east in Asia & west in Europe ... a diverse patchwork of great apes were involved in a repeated complex of separate developments and interbreeding ... all led inexorably to a remarkable 'human' capacity for extensive learning -
trial & error learning in hard reality and in our miraculous imaginations
cumulative learning across the generations which became embedded in diverse cultures
The defining human characteristic, our power & glory ... the precocious survival success of mongrels & braininess ... not by accident nor providence ... but by natural selection.
Genes & Memes - the ultimate confusion ...
It was all very convoluted and understanding hurt our brains. We had to re-read Richard Dawkins 'The Selfish Gene' Chapter 11 'Memes: the new replicators' ... and even then we only got half of it. We didn't fare much better in 2017 with Daniel Dennett 'From Bacteria to Bach and Back'.
This clever guy called Daniel (after our grandson?) ... he posed a key question -
How could a slow mindless process (Darwin's natural selection) build a structure (Sapiens' imaginative brain) that could build structures (Boeing 747s) that a slow mindless process could not build on its own?
Dan answered his own question -
The giraffe's long neck resulted from the death of the short necked variety ... there was nothing supernatural!
It all seemed to follow from replicating DNA with copying errors?
Different DNA spellings, in different alleles, in different genomes, had different interactions, in different teams, at different times, in different locations, for different durations ... constructed different folk, with different behaviours, and different cultures which changed the environment and fed back and influenced the survival chances of the original spellings ... one whole shebang & caboodle ... a gene/culture co-evolution.
Better read that paragraph again.
The key to understanding was to think of change over endless 'generational time' together with Darwin;s 1859 insight which turned change on its head. and made 'design' difficult ... individuals learned but gererations physically change ... science roared ahead but at the same time exposed a priapic conundrum ... proteins were needed to make DNA but DNA was needed to make proteins ... ?
The brain kept the body ticking but also with its memory & imagination then proved to be a supreme survival aid because behaviour and culture began to influence how, where, when & which folk produced surviving babies ... then here's a thing ... once the sophisticated brain had evolved, the physical differences in the Hominin Family stabilised into one Sapiens species ... one dispersed gene pool without any survival disadvantages because survival of the species began to depend overwhelmingly on behavioural & cultural differences ... such differences became the rampant evolutionary feedstock?
Just like the evolution of eukaryotic cells in the distant past, the evolution of sophisticated brains, aka memory & imagination, now powered a dramatic new evolutionary spurt cashing in on successful behaviour & technology ... as hitherto unconnected connections became embedded in cultures.
It was seemingly limitless opportunities for smart & sharp thinking that led to the Boeing 747 and walking on the moon.
For sure the Birchalls played a part, but so did everyone else. Remember happenings were no linear chronology of cause & effect but rather ... an entangled mess -
with novel emergent cycles which were also ... dynamic & interconnected & interactive & interdependent & contemporaneous & emergent.
A metabolic maelstrom (or should it be a physiological maelstrom or did it matter?) as energy flowed from natural inherited proton gradients across membranes and coded info in replicating molecules. H+ sensed OH- and H2 reacted with CO2 and once we got to organic chemistry ... Darwin and DNA explained the rest ... for sure there was no evidence for that old bearded man in the sky ... but there were 'miracles' for certain. Electro chemical sensing & responding & remembering just got more complicated ... 'As Time Went By' ... or something like that ... even the scientists didn't agree on the details so saxophone players had no chance?
In this way the survival of one whole shebang & caboodle became processed not only by genes but also by memes? But Hecky Nora, wot on earth were memes? The scientists couldn't even see them. Some said they were 'ideas' associated with neuron circuits & networks, new and inherited ideas, all competing for space in the brain, thinking tools ... some replicated in brains and were remembered in futures ... remembered across generations in cultures ... and some, especially when they aided survival, were reused again & again and even became 'hard wired' circuits & networks ... and for sure they influenced the environment and influenced the survival chances of the whole shebang & caboodle ...
Too much info ... give us a break ... seriously ... hello?
Wotever, it was impossible to imagine how on earth imaginary memes could be mixed & picked without physical genes being mixed & picked ... it looked like brains were nothing special, lots of species had brains, it was the way that they were wired up for learning that was special, really special. We always knew we were 'well connected'!
So physical genes & imaginary memes were inseparable ... genes were embodied in an intimate environment ... memes couldn't exist without a brain ... cultures couldn't exist without imaginations and memories ... outcomes of the same Darwinian process ... and nested in a set of sets, a long long continuity, safe & immortal in a decentralised database of 'know how'; the Homo Sapiens gene pool.
Oh my and we thought we were the bees knees!
To us grubby engineers the laws of physics & chemistry were unimpeachable ... at least for the time being ... of course there was always the possibility that new experiments might disapprove our most cherished beliefs ... but there was no chance of pontificating Bishops, Princes, General & Bureaucrats washing our brains? Ben Franklin was clear,
'a man convinced against his will
is of the same opinion still'
So for certain DNA had survived the ravages of time and its veracity had been proven by the rigors of science.
DNA built genes & brains which became conscious of memes ... there was nothing else going on ... mind boggling complexity over unimaginable oceans of time and at least one thing was certain ... it was impossible for physics & chemistry to lie.
So how did it all work?
Counterintuitive Biological Science has made breath taking progress. We note just 10 of the dwarfs standing on the shoulders of their ancestral giants -
1759 & 1776 Adam the Smith identified a preposterously successful species inhabiting the pubs & clubs of Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment. Homo Sapiens was distinguished for acclaim because of their remarkably ingenious capacities for 'Moral Sentiments' and 'Wealth Creation' without divine intervention.
'Moral Philosophy' & 'Natural Philosophy' became inextricably linked with Adam the Smith at Glasgow University.
1859 Charlie Darwin explained the unbelievable notion of 'natural selection' which unsurprisingly nobody believed. The process acted on inherited differences & cashed in on synergies as less efficient variants were sifted out & died in a lethal process of differential survival.
Malthusian resource scarcity checked population growth and made survival a continuous struggle.
1865 Gregor Mendel discovered the rules of inheritance, by experiment. Cross fertilisation of blue & white pea parents didn't produce a blend in offsprings. Each parent had 2 sets of genetic alternatives (alleles) but they were segregated & assorted into only 1 set per parent which were inherited at fertilisation of the offspring to restore the two alternatives (alleles). The expression of the genes in the environment as offspring developed followed the third law of dominance; only 1 (recessive) of the 4 possible combinations of inherited alternatives produced white peas the other 3 (dominant) possibilities were blue.
The Laws of Units of Inheritance - Segregation, Assortment & Dominance.
R A Fisher developed
statistics and the modern synthesis of Darwin & Mendel and
Chromosome Theory. Genetic information was
stored in 23 chromosomes in the cell nucleus. 97% of
our DNA was in 22
set from mum & one set from dad. The pairs were then
shuffled into one set in the testes
& ovaries ... the two sets one from mum & one from dad were then
recombined at fertilisation in an offspring.
The 23rd 'sex' chromosome contained an X X pair for girls but an X Y pair for boys with the Y inherited only from dad. One other bit of DNA in mitochondria, outside the nucleus, was inherited only from mum.
Life was built from existing inherited Cells which originated from Cell Division & Cell Specialisation.
1953 James Watson & Francis Crick defined the chemical & physical structure of DNA. A double helix which unzipped & rebuilt copies of sequences of A, T, C & G (adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine) where A links to T & C links to G, the nucleotide bases which synthesized 20 amino acids. This was the 'software' code which built the proteins/enzymes of metabolism & physiology. The amino acids didn't interact in isolation, but in different complex interacting combinations. Watson / Crick discovery -
'It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material. The precise sequence of the bases is the code which carries the genetic information.'
Wow! Faithful, Stable, Replication of information with just enough copying errors to make life interesting.
1970 Lynn Magulis suggested a Theory of Endosymbiosis and an evolutionary breakthrough as eukaryotic cells were formed from the merging of small single celled prokaryotic Bacteria & Archaea.
Symbiosis, involved a living arrangement of two different organisms which together could be mutually beneficial. DNA had previously existed independently maybe with a protected nucleus. Mitochondria and chloroplasts, the two major organelles processing energy for life, were descendants of free living prokaryotic cells of bacterial species.
Eukaryotic cells cashed in on survival benefits from synergies of specialisation & scale with a nucleus containing the chromosomes and separate organelle specialisations, which combined into autonomous modules which built scale in multi celled Plants & Animals.
In addition to random copying errors, the merging of different organisms provided further diversity.
Evolution built from the bottom up as synergistic interactions tended to survive as parasitic interactions tended to be sifted out of the melee.
Life did not take over the globe by beggar thy neighbour, but by networking cooperation.
2001 Fred Sanger & Craig Venter mapped the human Genome which contained just 21,000 protein coding genes that worked in teams and generated phenotype structural & behavioural traits ... and 97% was mysterious junk? For scaffolding, switching, punctuating, sequencing in time & location ... and repeats & redundancies? Confirming robustness from a modular building of complexity from the bottom up by a simple repetitive process. Copy - Two copies of each gene resided in alleles. Vary - Diversity came from copying errors, symbiosis, sex & allele alternatives. Select - Natural Selection acted on these differences.
Uncontaminated DNA helixes were extracted, then split by heat into a single strand, cut by enzymes into pieces of differing lengths and beginnings marked with an annealed 'primer'. The mix of lengths was added to 4 separate enzyme concoctions which stopped the DNA growth at 4 different fluoro marked base positions; A T C G. Each of the four resultant mixes of different length fragments marked from the same primer beginning to a known base ending were migrated through a charged medium as short fragments moved faster than large fragments four patterns emerged which identified the positions of the know base. Similar details for all the four base patterns were aligned and matched to show the positions in the sequence of all the 4 bases ... exceedingly neat and clever ... real amazing chemistry ... thank you Fred ... have you got it?
2015 Nick Lane, via Peter Mitchell, suggested that the source of life came, not from Darwin's primordial soup and electric storms, but rather from the proton gradients as concentrated energy dispersed according to the laws of physics in deep thermal vents at the bottom of the oceans ... not magic, just a continuous application of the Laws of Physics & Chemistry ... acidic CO2 and alkaline H2O under special circumstances ... react? ... mitochondrial DNA, evolved from a proton gradient and powered evolution?
But reflect ... maybe Darwin's process was dead simple but it was the detail that was beyond our ken ... and remember DNA was not the start ... there was a 'before DNA' ... maybe there was even a before 'before the big bang'? ... but, let's not get too ambitious, the big bang could be a propitious launch pad for the imaginations of todays Biological Historians? ... think about it ... just one history; a continuum -
an expanding universe - temperature gradients - the 2nd law of thermodynamics - hydrogen - stars - galaxies - periodic tables - planets - proton gradients - replicating molecules - RNA - DNA - nucleotides - amino acids - proteins - bacteria - archaea - eukaryotic cells - plants - animals ... and big brains with memories & imaginations ... and such folk were mobile & horny ... social animals ...
Such explained a lot ... and there was a lot to explain!
Ethnicity Results - Birchall DNA ...
The apparent certainty of DNA chemistry was an exciting start point as Family Historians turned themselves into Biological Historians ... at least something was now fathomable. So here we go ... Our Ancestry Ethnicity Estimate -
England, Wales & Northwestern Europe - 91%
- Northern England & the Midlands
- Wales & the West Midlands
Ireland and Scotland - 6%
Sweden - 3%
WOW! or ... wow?
We were a little underwhelmed ... paying good shekels for our DNA analysis was just a bit of fun but we then had to force ourselves to admit that the ‘results’ were only mildly interesting for individuals because our DNA threads through everyone ... we could tell an awful lot about Homo Sapiens but not very much about the deep individual identity of our ancestors ... much info about other folk and much info about individual risk but little about individual identity ... but did it matter?
So ... let's be clear, when all was said and done (and, as usual, there was much more said than done) our very own analysis only revealed to us something about some folk who -
were alive today who
had had their DNA analysed with current methods and who
had joined the 'Ancestry.com' public database and
bothered to detail their family tree on 'Ancestry.com' and
had a common ancestor with each other
... in this way, after all this 'analytical' malarkey, all that was revealed was the whereabouts of these there such folk when their tests were done ... if you follow the logic?
And to cap the lot every single one of us had the same common ancestor if you only go back a little little.
So beware of false prophets and grand revelations ... but also be excited and remember that there were migrations and ghosts from the past hidden in our genomes just waiting to be discovered ... we thought we'd got it? ... but admitted again that it hurt our brain.
The snag was that the chemistry which didn't lie very soon became very very complicated -
... energy flowed into replicating molecules which copied information as DNA in chromosomes which contained sequences of nucleotide codes to make proteins from amino acids which interacted in autonomous cells ... cells which contained a complete instruction manual for growth & development of folk by subdivision & specialisation as sex added to the random diversity which was the feedstock for evolutionary change by natural selection which somehow or other generated synergies when folk interacted ...
Through this 3.5 billion year helter-skelter of life on earth it seemed to us to be the coded info, the 'know how', that mattered not the physical & chemical structures ... or were they both the same thing ... it was info that was embedded in DNA which gave us a glimpse of our history -
DNA molecules faithfully replicated themselves with just enough copying errors to make life interesting ...
DNA harnessed useful energy from the sun & constructed chloroplasts in plants ...
DNA harnessed useful energy from chloroplasts & constructed mitochondria in animals ...
DNA in eukaryotic cells made animals mobile & horny ...
DNA made some animals experience excitement & fear ...
DNA made the girls (& the boys, but especially the girls) defend their somatic investments from parasites & predators ...
DNA made some species which developed big brains & manipulating hands which cashed in on social synergies of specialisation & scale ... and it was Homo Sapiens who cottoned on to agriculture, husbandry & trade ... social & cultural activities which shaped the modern world ... and must have shaped the fascinating, indelible, history of the Birchalls.
Richard Dawkins & his mates, like John Maynard Smith & Robert Axelrod, knew far far more about the history of the Birchalls and their issue than was revealed by our optimistic Googling of the parchment scans and the analysis of our DNA.
Biological science discovered happenings which were very difficult to dispute -
'The key to doing well lies not in overcoming others but in eliciting their cooperation. Individuals don’t have to be rational; the evolutionary process alone allows successful strategy to thrive, even if the players do not know why or how. No central authority is needed, cooperation is self policing. Cooperation evolved because two cooperating individuals must do better than they would if each acted on their own ... Adam Smith's principle of division of labour in his pin factory was relevant at all levels ... in multicellular organisms, cells specialised to perform different functions ... and all cooperators benefited ... genes did cost benefit analysis.'
These outrageous suggestions were not talking heads pontificating, this was scientific 'know how', a self correcting methodology of acquiring knowledge & understanding ... the great Steven Hawking was on the ball -
'Some individuals were better able than others to draw the right conclusions about the world about them and act accordingly. These individuals were more likely to survive and reproduce so their pattern of behaviour and thought became dominant'
We reckoned the greatest of all Steven's 'individuals' was Charles Darwin ... but remember he was only -
'a dwarf sitting on the shoulders of ancestral giants' ...
It was Charles Darwin who pondered, mulled happenings over and tested out his ideas in his imagination and in his science ... and when pressed he suggested a simple truth -
'I was led to it all through wondering why?'
In 1859 Charles Darwin uncovered new opportunities for historians -
'It's an awful stretcher, most people don’t get it, I must be a very bad explainer, but of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important ... and light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history'
... and that seemed to us Birchalls to be spot on ... and the penny dropped.
In this way the DNA biology gave very big clues about how Birchalls behaved and thought ... but only very small clues about Birchall identities.
This was the first big lesson from our 'Ancestry.com' DNA analysis.
Look at it this way -
folk came from the same universal & evolving gene pool but married distinct individual cousins
folk had universal emotions of excitement & fear but individual beliefs about the biggest question of all ... how to make sense of evolutionary happenings?
So Family History for us decrepit Birchalls became a fun story about some of the memorable outcomes of natural selection -
The Birchalls, just like everybody else, had dipped into the homo sapiens gene pool and bagged a unique collection of combinations & mixes of pre-existing variants from mom & pop ... variants which had just happened to have differentially survived ... and they then passed new variants on to the grand kids to test.
We believed in the copy/vary/select process which Darwin described in 1859 ... but an awful lot of folk didn't!
Rain check ... did the Boeing 747 really evolve by natural selection? ... by discovery & accumulation? ... and was DNA the messenger?
The killer insight for family historians was that instead of a clear linear genealogy, often found under the front covers of dusty family bibles ... the genealogical happenings were an interminable mess. The truth was that our cousins multiplied and exploded and our pedigrees folded in on themselves as branches looped back and became networks ... memorably described by Adam Rutherford as 'an entangled Clusterfuck' ... and yes the word was in the 'Urban Dictionary' & the 'Oxford Living Dictionary' originating with American GIs ... where else? Everybody became enmeshed in a woven web from an evolving gene pool.
The Birchalls all struggled into and out of existence as the genetic past flowed in and the genetic future spilled out.
History as writ was a mere sliver of a gigantic history of a species which involved -
at least 3.5 billion years of ongoing evolution of life on planet earth ... with no discontinuities yet discovered ...
and why not 13.8 billion years of continuous evolution from the Big Bang on to 4.6 billion years of planet earth?
But ... and there was a big but.
The Birchalls, just like everyone else, mostly believed in an alternative very familiar view of our world, a 'Weltanschauung', a world shaped by plausible, deliberate, rational, purposeful, intentions & plans ... a God behind every tree ... all things bright & beautiful the lord God made them all ... a very un-Darwin like top down design extravaganza.
But we were all wrong ... the method of science discovered, very recently, that evolutionary happenings just cropped up ... they were not orchestrated by the whims of Bishops, Princes, Generals nor Bureaucrats ... happenings were misunderstood ... the only thing that was certain was that DNA made individual Birchalls uniquely unfathomable ... but at the same time, and again, just like everyone else, the Birchalls were universally excitable & fearful ... and universally mobile & horny ... so, think about it ... why did all the different Birchall girls universally dance backwards? ... wot on earth was going on?
It seemed particular genetic variants made us all individually unique but nothing special ... however the evolving gene pool, which defined our species, was special because the pool was full of successful survivors from the past, all special because they had escaped from the grim reaper.
So for the frustrated family historians the gene pool told an alternative unassailable story about the past ... and also told us little about our future, about survival ... about surviving synergistic behaviours & cultures ... the history of the gene pool became fascinating ... and very relevant ... from the evolution of the gene pool we could learn ... we could learn about survival and we could learn about synergy ... that was certain ... if you follow our drift?
Now here's the rub. If the surviving gene pool was special, why was individual diversity so important?
Darwin explained the copy/vary/select process in 1859 ... after economist Adam the Smith fed him clues about human behaviour & human thought in his yarns about 'Moral Sentiments' & 'Wealth of Nations'. The Smith explained how cooperative synergies made the world go round in his pin factory ... and why the girls danced backwards ... no differences no synergies no survival.
Biological History - before before ...
Family Historians everywhere tried to get their heads around Charlie Darwin ... it seemed that there was a need, or rather, a necessity, for individual variation if populations were to change and to survive, but, at the same time, there was an inevitability of universal similarities as successful survival strategies proliferated in the populations ... this was experimental changes and natural selection ... differential survival.
We inherited bits of our ancestors but our descendants were different.
Our DNA proved that Neanderthals and more were in the Clusterfuck but we were not Neanderthals.
Smart cookies listened to the Darwinian scientists -
'A pre-existing inherited variant with a survival advantage in the local
environment always increased in population frequency in the gene pool as
alternative variants died out; thus changing the environment which then fed
back and influenced the survival chances of any new variant.
The giraffe's long neck was not intelligently designed; rather short necked giraffes died out.'
But that didn't help much, most folk were plain mesmerised ... however when they had a think about the peahen's fascination with the peacock's tail and mongrels and coy girls ... for some the penny began to drop?
why do mongrels secure genetic advantages?
inbreeding was dangerous ... ask the afflicted hemophiliac Habsburgs about the survival of inefficiency?
immune systems generated legions of hunter T-cell variants ... thus increasing the chances of a kill?
The evolution tolerance to hostile environments was a survival aids inherited by mongrels from the diversity of separate development and interbreeding.
no differences, no synergies ...
why do coy girls secure genetic advantages?
access to eggs was a big deal, they were available only once a month and then nothing for nine months ... defences against parasitic & predator mates was a survival advantage?
genes did their own cost/benefit analysis ... not only selecting some efficient genes, but also selecting some efficient parental behaviour & culture of mates?
The evolution of cooperation was a survival aid inherited by the girls to protect their investment in stocks of quality DNA by the repeated interactions of monogamy.
no defences, no stocks ...
The planning problem for the girls (& the boys) was that nobody knew in advance which of the random genetic mutations would be beneficial ... but then nobody was starting from scratch because the existing gene pool was already full of successful survivors ... got it!
In this way, without thinking ... and certainly without recourse to detailed spreadsheet clculations ... the Birchalls (& Whelans!) didn't marry failures ... in the statistical lottery of life most of the failures were already dead!
So Birchall & Whelan boys ended up married to girls similar to themselves from the existing pool ... similar genes, similar behaviour & similar culture ... but not too similar ... each copulation had the potential to mix up the existing genes something rotten ... but luckily (however Darwin suggested it was very much NOT luck but rather 'natural selection') ... it proved physically impossible to accumulate dead heads, runts & bummers in the gene pool ... such misfits found it increasingly difficult to survive and grow in the population ... in short they were sifted out ... misfits had fewer surviving babies ... only survivors survived ... and to survive with alacrity it appeared cooperation & synergy were needed ... which proved a little difficult for dead heads.
But don't get it all wrong - misfits were sifted out by 'natural selection' ... they had statistically fewer surviving babies ... they were not sifted out on the whims of intelligent design or eugenics ... the Bishops, Princes, Generals & Bureaucrats had no privileged access knowledge and the 'misfits' they arrogantly identified might just be tomorrows scientific geniuses.
But don't get it doubly wrong - it was always the case that parasites & predators survived ... you've met 'em ... as soon as there were stocks there were thieves.
The speedy evolution of pathogens themselves gave our very own immune systems a run for their money in the spiraling cycles of the struggle for existence ... it was an arms race. However all was not lost ... remember the parasitic organelles from the past, like chloroplasts and mitochondria, they survived and earned a grateful round of applause from everybody ... these energy harvesters taught us a lesson ... some 'parasites' survived in the fullness of time because they turned 'cooperative' as they secured a synergistic niche in the eukaryotic cell ... and proliferated?
All these catawampus happenings made Biological History both infuriatingly difficult & muddled ... but great fun ... one gigantic entangled Clusterfuck?
In 2015 closer to home the boffins had a go at statistically tracking DNA flows into folk living today ... and estimating the time scales of history from the very few fossils which had managed to preserve a modicum of uncontaminated DNA ... mutation rates were the genetic changes per genome per average generation of 28 years ... but was it an estimate or a wild guess ... and wot's the difference? Things were getting exciting ... but so were wild goose chases.
By 2015 DNA analysis of the human genome had got better & better and a special sample of the proper hoi polloi was statistically examined for wispy fingerprints of the ghosts from the past.
Around 2,000 UK folk were selected for analysis who had 4 grandparents who were all born locally ... this was an attempt to exclude more recent waves of immigration and target a sample of 'relatively' static DNA. Reference samples from 10 European countries were also included.
DNA was inherited in 'peloton' chunks which included individual neutral 'snips' (SNPs, Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms) which didn't die or lie ... they 'hitchhiked' on the back of naturally selected useful genes and survived like 'spandrels' ... could these neutral differences identify an original ancestor from the hopelessly inadequate DNA fossil record?
500,000 'snip' variables on each genome were targeted and from the statistical analysis seventeen genetically similar 'groups' were identified as subtly different from the pool ... only in conclusion were the results plotted geographically on the map by grandparent location.
At this resolution there was no homogenous mix but rather distinct genetic clusters of folk more similar to each other than to the rest of the country.
Magical patterns emerged ... just look at the map ... were the patterns the long lost webs of family trees?
Such differences were very small, enhanced by lack of mobility but still blurred by hornyness ... untidy & messy ... overall it was clearly a Clusterfuck, we were all cousins, but all slightly different but clustered ... which was informative but not definitive.
Frustrated? Wot about Birchall genetic geography or language or culture?
Get your head around Population Statistics - one whole shebang & caboodle with different differences ...
Some Mysterious Surprises -
Blurred Racial Identities - each racial group preserved 85% of the variations in the gene pool.
The tribal Celts, Picts, Scots, Angles, Saxons were mere indefinable samples from messy globs of DNA ... not a homogeneous blend but grainy, where high resolution analysis could sift out some wispy fingerprints which were a great leveler, less tainted than the writ word, and a viable truthful record of the outrageous Clusterfuck.
Celtic clusters settled in the western extremities of Cornwall and North & South Wales but such cultural displacements were not genetically similar.
Romans left little genetic trace, they ruled from afar but recruited their armies of horny troops from Gaul not Rome.
Anglo-Saxons came settled and integrated in the big south east and left a large enduring genetic and cultural legacy in language and common law ... they liked it in our green & pleasant land and the girls were cute and exciting.
Vikings from Norway settled in the far North and fully integrated there but the Viking Danes further south kept themselves to themselves and left little trace of the geography of Danelaw ... there was not much rape & pillage and there was plenty of space for separate development.
Clearly in the broad picture we were all mixed up, just one interbreeding species, Homo Sapiens, which made genetic identities figments. But at high resolution genetics showed that people were different and these differences clustered according to geography & culture but not so much according to race ... we guessed the boys were horny wherever they went but sometimes they settled and married the girl next door.
Individual folk inherited via their parents a unique random sample of genes from the universal Homo Sapiens gene pool and individual folk fed back via their surviving kids a different unique random sample of genes into the pool.
Blind Watchmakers - only 21,000 genes coded for only 20 amino acids but each gene interacted with others in different locations at different times in different teams to produce proteins & immense complexity ... happenings in metabolism & physiology were dynamic & contemporaneous & interconnected & interactive & interdependent with emergent feedback. Complex Adaptive Systems did not involve determinism because Effects became Causes.
Umpteen unknown ancient happenings may or may not be causes of effects, and effects themselves may or may not be causes of brand new happenings.
Misunderstood Lineages - DNA analysis accurately identified our close relatives but mobile & horny behaviours made genealogical direct lines of inheritance meaningless ... everyone was about a 30th cousin as lineages were more like networks of mixtures ... sprawling all over the place ... The Clusterfuck ensured Lineages became entangled as we all married our cousins and were descended from the same person many times over.
If your Dad married his Cousin, your Great Aunt once removed would be your Mum.
Gene Pool Evolution -
10 generations 50% of ancestral DNA has died out
of our lineage. We all have far less in common with our direct ancestors than we think and far more in
common with everyone in our gene pool.
Genetic variations died out, drifted or prospered in the gene pool ... harmful traits died out and made space in the gene pool for survivors ... which reappeared, later in individuals, as ghosts from the past. Population Statistics traced the Past flowing in and the Future flowing out of individuals as the pool was a great evolutionary dustbin The gene pool evolved and created brains, language & technology ... and an meme pool of increasing survival 'know how'.
Survival was difficult things went wrong all the time & the average intelligence of your kids was likely less than your own but the more intelligent of your kids likely had more surviving babies & brought the average intelligence of your grand kids likely up ... and up.
Gene/Culture Coevolution - by comparing different genomes we can relate different bits of DNA with different behavioural traits and estimate when such behaviour became established in the gene pool ...
Lactose tolerance was a cultural survival aid, a well researched genetic trait appearing in European Homo Sapiens around 5,000 to 10,000BC as cultivation and animal husbandry was established ...
Peacock's tails were a route to gene survival because of their remarkable effect on peahens ... but contrary to popular belief blue eyed blondes & pale skins were a route to survival via Vitamin D ... not sex ...
Successful survival behaviour became assimilated into hard wired genetics as The Baldwin Effect explained how Nature & Nurture became indistinguishable.
Pre-existing inherited variants with survival advantages in the local environment always increase in population frequency in the gene pool as alternative variants die out; thus changing the environment which then feeds back and influences the survival chances of any new variant.
Counterintuitive Statistics -
99% of all species that ever existed have gone extinct ... we progressed one funeral at a time.
everyone alive had a mum & dad who also had a mum & dad ... each generation doubled the number of ancestors ... exploding backwards ... back in the time of Charlemagne around 750AD there were 137,438,593,472 folk involved... do the maths! ... sooooo your own family tree contained 137 billion folk ... impossibly more than all the folk that have ever lived on the planet?
600 years ago in Europe there was one individual alive to whom all Europeans could be back traced ... we all had a relatively recent common ancestor. 1,000 years ago 20% of living Europeans left no ancestors who are alive today, their lines petered out. 1,000 years ago 80% of living Europeans who did leave ancestors who are alive today were the ancestors of everyone alive today, all lines coalesced on every individual in the 80%. Lineages were coalescing not exploding.
3,400 years ago the most recent common ancestor of every Homo Sapiens alive today was alive ... and we were all descended from this single being.
5,000 years ago there were 5 million Homo Sapiens, in 2025 there will be 9 billion.
10,000 years ago at dawn of agriculture & husbandry ... Paul MacCready calculated ... Homo Sapiens and their domesticated animals accounted for <1% of the total biomass of vertebrate animals; today 98% ... Homo Sapiens, was an explosively successful species ... but Herbert Stein ominously suggested, 'if something can't go on for ever it will stop'...
30,000 years ago our ancestral Europeans and Neanderthals were together in The Clusterfuck ... Neanderthals were cousins, close enough to interbreed.
100,000 years ago we were all Africans ... everyone had a common ancestor in Africa ... and before that ... our common ancestor was in the trees ... and before that ... in the sea.
99.9% of the 3 billion nucleotide bases in DNA were the same in everyone but the 0.1% were the 3 billion base code differences which were inherited ... and each individual acquired, through nothing other than chance, at least 100 mutations that were unique to him & her. The 3 million bases that were different, interacted with all the others in different teams, at different times, in different locations, for different durations and made more different differences ... not one gene for one function or one disease but dozens of interacting small differences in a well disguised interactive network with context dependency and where the local environments were also players.
85% of the job opportunities for the youngsters in 2030 haven't been invented yet
So there we have it, the whole shebang & caboodle was accounted for by the Laws of Physics & Chemistry ... but constant change, conflict, complexity & scarcity ... made the genetic outcomes perplexing ... and more.
Adam Rutherford again -
'It was easy to fork out a bit of money for a DNA analysis but very difficult to understand the complex genetic pathways, the epigenetic interactions with the environment and the statistics that under lay the risks & uncertainties in the population dynamics'.
Family Historians became Biological Historians, they discovered that Family Trees were not Trees at all they were Messes as Lineages became Sprawls ... individuals were nothing special but Homo Sapiens was miraculous ... but then individual folk also realised their most cherished and exciting dreams -
'we were of Royal Descent after all' ... because everybody was ...
'we had Black Sheep in the family for sure' ... because everyone did ...
and wot about my Neanderthal traits -
yes, around 2.7%, 81 million base codes, 'we were descended from Neanderthals' ... because every European was thus endowed ...
... but it was always great fun to try and find some of the inevitable interconnections!
Who said 'miracles' were supernatural?
So tune in and listen on to hear about the survival value hidden in our very own individual DNA; historical 'know how' embedded in a code we hardly even glimpsed until 2001.
Biological History from genomes was not fake news, it didn't lie and was never forgotten ... Biological History was immortalised in DNA. This was no expensive parlour game but rather a profound conundrum.
Our very own DNA was just one 'random' sample from the Homo Sapiens gene pool ... nevertheless it was a sample of special genes ... surviving genes which constructed our brains which became infected by memes. For just three score years & ten, we borrowed such survival 'know how' for a lifetime of experiments in our imaginations ... and we tested out just a few of the most promising candidates, for real, in reality. Most 'random' experiments failed and only the survivors supercharged adaptations necessary to cope as environments changed ... these survivors were passed on to the next generation as genes for life and memes for behaviour.
Only now do we dimly begin to understand that our history, our DNA, was not luck ... it was not manna from heaven ... nor was it designed by Bishops, Princes, Generals or Bureaucrats ... but rather it was the outcome of Darwin's natural selection. A 'miraculous' process which gave us tools, inherited free gratis & for nowt from our ancestors ... but it was always the craftsmen of each generation who created brand new 'know how' which was available to pass on to our own bewildered grandchildren ... only in this way could the kids adapt to the inevitable excitement of their passions & the inevitable fear of their horrors.
Everyone should pay their 50 squids at the door and have their DNA analysed ... not to confirm whether their Neanderthal traits were kosher but rather to help understand wot on earth was going on!
'Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind' by Yuval Noah Harari 2015
'A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes' by Adam Rutherford 2017
(our genomes tell the history of our mobile & horny species, a story which connects our history to our future)
'Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the new science of the human past' by David Reich 2018
(migration patterns, diversity, mixing, ghosts in our DNA)
'Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are' by Robert Plomin 2018
(99% similar and 1% different for the future, test them out, don't try to mould they may work)
'Our Human Story' by Louise Humphrey and Chris Stringer 2018
(hominin diversity, sapiens survival, fascinating cast of characters)
'DNA Is Not Destiny: The Remarkable, Completely Misunderstood Relationship between You and Your Genes' by Steven J Heine 2018
(genes create life but do not control it, you can change your DNA destiny. You can change the environment which influences the survival chances of your genes)
back to Birchall Family History