Tag Archives: evolution

Mitochondrial Eve

Allan Charles Wilson (18 October 1934 – 21 July 1991) was a Professor of Biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, a pioneer in the use of molecular approaches to understand evolutionary change and reconstruct phylogenies, and a revolutionary contributor to the study of human evolution. He was one of the most controversial figures in post-war biology; his work attracted a great deal of attention both from within and outside the academic world. He is the only New Zealander to have won the MacArthur Fellowship.[1]

He is best known for experimental demonstration of the concept of the molecular clock (with his doctoral student Vincent Sarich), which was theoretically postulated by Linus Pauling and Emile Zuckerkandl, revolutionary insights into the nature of the molecular anthropology of higher primates and human evolution, called Mitochondrial Eve hypothesis (with his doctoral students Rebecca L. Cann and Mark Stoneking).[2][3]

Wilson joined the UC Berkeley faculty of biochemistry in 1964, and was promoted to full professor in 1972.[8] His first major scientific contribution was published as Immunological Time-Scale For Hominid Evolution in the journal Science in December 1967.[16] With his student Vincent Sarich,[17][18] he showed that evolutionary relationships of the humanspecies with other primates, in particular the Great Apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans), could be inferred from molecular evidence obtained from living species, rather than solely from fossils of extinct creatures. Their microcomplement fixation method (see complement system) measured the strength of the immune reaction between an antigen(serum albumin) from one species and an antibody raised against the same antigen in another species. The strength of the antibody-antigen reaction was known to be stronger between more closely related species: their innovation was to measure it quantitatively among many species pairs as an “immunological distance“. When these distances were plotted against the divergence times of species pair with well-established evolutionary histories, the data showed that the molecular difference increased linearly with time, in what was termed a “molecular clock“. Given this calibration curve, the time of divergence between species pairs with unknown or uncertain fossil histories could be inferred. Most controversially, their data suggested that divergence times between humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas were on the order of 3~5 million years, far less than the estimates of 9~30 million years accepted by conventional paleoanthropologists from fossil hominids such as Ramapithecus. This ‘recent origin’ theory of human/ape divergence remained controversial until the discovery of the “Lucy” fossils in 1974.[15]

Wilson and another PhD student Mary-Claire King subsequently compared several lines of genetic evidence (immunology, amino acid differences, and protein electrophoresis) on the divergence of humans and chimpanzees, and showed that all methods agreed that the two species were >99% similar.[4][19] Given the large organismal differences between the two species in the absence of large genetic differences, King and Wilson argued that it was not structural gene differences that were responsible for species differences, butgene regulation of those differences, that is, the timing and manner in which near-identical gene products are assembled during embryology and development. In combination with the “molecular clock” hypothesis, this contrasted sharply with the accepted view that larger or smaller organismal differences were due to large or smaller rates of genetic divergence.

In the early 1980s, Wilson further refined traditional anthropological thinking with his work with PhD students Rebecca Cann and Mark Stoneking on the so-called “Mitochondrial Eve” hypothesis.[20] In his efforts to identify informative genetic markers for tracking human evolutionary history, he focused on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) — genes that are found in mitochondria in the cytoplasm of the cell outside the nucleus. Because of its location in the cytoplasm, mtDNA is passed exclusively from mother to child, the father making no contribution, and in the absence of genetic recombination defines female lineages over evolutionary timescales. Because it also mutates rapidly, it is possible to measure the small genetic differences between individual within species by restriction endonuclease gene mapping. Wilson, Cann, and Stoneking measured differences among many individuals from different human continental groups, and found that humans from Africa showed the greatest inter-individual differences, consistent with an African origin of the human species (the so-called “Out of Africa” hypothesis). The data further indicated that all living humans shared a common maternal ancestor, who lived in Africa only a few hundreds of thousands of years ago. This common ancestor became widely known in the media and popular culture as the Mitochondrial Eve. This had the unfortunate and erroneous implication that only a single female lived at that time, when in fact the occurrence of a coalescent ancestor is a necessary consequence of population genetic theory, and the Mitochondrial Eve would have been only one of many humans (male and female) alive at that time.[2][3] This finding was, like his earlier results, not readily accepted by anthropologists. Conventional hypothesis was that various human continental groups had evolved from diverse ancestors, over several million of years since divergence from chimpanzees. The mtDNA data, however, strongly suggested that all humans descended from a common, quite recent, African mother.[4][15]

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1969 Aug;63(4):1088-93.

A molecular time scale for human evolution.


We discuss published molecular evidence concerning the relationship of man to African apes and Old World monkeys. Quantitative comparisons of their serum albumins, transferrins, hemoglobins, and DNA show that man is genetically much more similar to the African apes than to the Old World monkeys. The amino acid sequences of hemoglobins from humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and rhesus monkeys are consistent with the hypothesis that the probability of an amino acid substitution occurring in a given interval of time is the same for every hemoglobin lineage. This allows the use of these data as a hemoglobin evolutionary clock, just as we have previously done with the albumins. It is shown that concordance exists between the hemoglobin and albumin results and that both support the suggestion that the human lineage diverged from that leading to the African apes far more recently than is generally supposed. Considering both the albumin and hemoglobin data, we would set the most probable date at 4 to 5 million years.

[PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

Free PMC Article

Dunbar’s number

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individualknows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.[1][2][3][4][5][6] This number was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size.[7] By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships.[8] Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 250, with a commonly used value of 150.[9][10] Dunbar’s number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.

Dunbar theorized that “this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” On the periphery, the number also includes past colleagues, such as high schoolfriends, with whom a person would want to reacquaint himself if they met again.[11]

Dunbar has argued that 150 would be the mean group size only for communities with a very high incentive to remain together. For a group of this size to remain cohesive, Dunbar speculated that as much as 42% of the group’s time would have to be devoted to social grooming. Correspondingly, only groups under intense survival pressure.

Dunbar, in Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, proposes furthermore that language may have arisen as a “cheap” means of social grooming, allowing early humans to maintain social cohesion efficiently. Without language, Dunbar speculates, humans would have to expend nearly half their time on social grooming, which would have made productive, cooperative effort nearly impossible. Language may have allowed societies to remain cohesive, while reducing the need for physical and social intimacy.[12]

Dunbar’s number has since become of interest in anthropology, evolutionary psychology,[13] statistics, and business management. For example, developers of social software are interested in it, as they need to know the size of social networks their software needs to take into account; and in the modern military, operational psychologists seek such data to support or refute policies related to maintaining or improving unit cohesion and morale. A recent study has suggested that Dunbar’s number is applicable to online social networks[14][15] and communication networks (mobile phone).[16]

Philip Lieberman argues that since band societies of approximately 30-50 people are bounded by nutritional limitations to what group sizes can be fed without at least rudimentary agriculture, big human brains consuming more nutrients than ape brains, group sizes of approximately 150 cannot have been selected for in paleolithic humans.[20]Brains much smaller than human or even mammalian brains are also known to be able to support social relationships, including social insects with hierachies where each individual knows its place (such as the paper wasp with its societies of approximately 80 individuals [21]) and computer-simulated virtual autonomous agents with simple reaction programming emulating what is referred to in primatology as “ape politics”.[22]

Punctuated equilibrium

Punctuated equilibrium (also called punctuated equilibria) is a theory in evolutionary biology which proposes that once species appear in the fossil record they will become stable, showing little net evolutionary change for most of their geological history. This state is calledstasis. When significant evolutionary change occurs, the theory proposes that it is generally restricted to rare and geologically rapid events of branching speciation called cladogenesis. Cladogenesis is the process by which a species splits into two distinct species, rather than one species gradually transforming into another.[1] Punctuated equilibrium is commonly contrasted against phyletic gradualism, the belief that evolution generally occurs uniformly and by the steady and gradual transformation of whole lineages (called anagenesis). In this view, evolution is seen as generally smooth and continuous.

In 1972, paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould published a landmark paper developing their theory and called it punctuated equilibria.[2] Their paper built upon Ernst Mayr‘s model of geographic speciation,[3] I. Michael Lerner‘s theories of developmental and genetic homeostasis,[4] as well as their own empirical research.[5][6] Eldredge and Gould proposed that the degree of gradualism commonly attributed to Charles Darwin is virtually nonexistent in the fossil record, and that stasis dominates the history of mostfossil species.

Stephen Jay Gould (/ɡld/; September 10, 1941 – May 20, 2002) was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation.[1] Gould spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at theAmerican Museum of Natural History in New York. In the later years of his life, Gould also taught biology and evolution at New York University.

Gould’s most significant contribution to evolutionary biology was the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which he developed with Niles Eldredge in 1972.[2] The theory proposes that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability, which is punctuated by rare instances of branching evolution. The theory was contrasted against phyletic gradualism, the idea that evolutionary change is marked by a pattern of smooth and continuous change in the fossil record.

Most of Gould’s empirical research was based on the land snail genera Poecilozonites and Cerion. He also contributed to evolutionary developmental biology, and has received wide praise for his book Ontogeny and Phylogeny. In evolutionary theory he opposed strict selectionism, sociobiology as applied to humans, andevolutionary psychology. He campaigned against creationism and proposed that science and religion should be considered two distinct fields (or “magisteria“) whose authorities do not overlap.[3]

Gould was known by the general public mainly from his 300 popular essays in the magazine Natural History,[4] and his books written for a non-specialist audience. In April 2000, the US Library of Congress named him a “Living Legend“.[5]