Headline hooks which confuse

By Razib Khan | March 8, 2013 10:42 am

The tree will coalesce!

My friend Aziz Poonawalla* asked me to comment on this piece in The New Scientist, The father of all men is 340,000 years old. My primary thought: the title probably confuses people, while the article itself is quite serviceable.The first paragraph condenses the specific and precise scientific detail well:

Albert Perry carried a secret in his DNA: a Y chromosome so distinctive that it reveals new information about the origin of our species. It shows that the last common male ancestor down the paternal line of our species is over twice as old as we thought

My concern: are people going to be misled by titles such as “The father of all men is 340,000 years old.” What does that even meant to the average person on the street? The logic of a Y chromosomal tree or a single sex lineage is simple: they will converge back to a common ancestor. But I strongly suspect that there is a tendency for headlines such as the one above to mislead people into inferring individual level genealogical information. By this, I mean that my Y chromosomal lineage comes from my paternal grandfather. But my maternal grandfather is no less my grandfather. Similarly, my paternal grandfather’s maternal grandfather is also no less my great-great-grandfather than his paternal grandfather. These are ultimately historical inferences about genetic lineages, not one’s genealogical history (or even a representative demographic history of a population!).

* I think it might be useful for me to divulge the fact that Aziz has a Ph.D. in physics, so he is not a science naive person.

Image credit: New binary polymorphisms reshape and increase resolution of the human Y chromosomal haplogroup tree

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolutionary Genetics

Comments (5)

  1. George Jones

    Perhaps Prof. Mark Thomas and others taking on the ‘Genetic Astrology’ Community (their term) much more strongly have some wisdom to impart on this topic as noted in their recent paper: “Sense About Genetic Ancestry Testing” .


    Mark also has previously given a shoutout to Razib over at Genomes Unzipped.

    What is this Thomas paper all about? Perhaps the opening salvo in a declared war between the Consumer Grade and Pro-Sumer Grade Genetic Genealogists and the PhD Population Geneticists.

    Will Gene Expression adopt a Swiss neutral position on this or come down on the side of Mark Thomas?

      • George Jones

        I think much of this started on the part of Mark Thomas and his colleagues because of a legitimate beef with Jim Wilson and Alistair Moffat at BritainsDNA … but now Thomas wants to tar and feather the ENTIRE Genetic Genealogy community and impune integrity and sinceretity of effort with terms like ‘Genetic Astrology’ & ‘Genetic Astrologists’

        A leading academic in this area said to me today: “Calling Genetic Genealogy people “Astrologers” is seen as a bit pejorative.”

        Indirectly, Thomas is tarnishing the integrity of Bennet Greenspan at FTDNA, Anne Wojcicki at 23andme, Henry Louis Gates and others such as Doug McDonald. Not to mention the thousands of Genetic Genealogists out there who really trying their best at Genetic Genealogy and connecting their dots over the past 15 (versus 150 or 1500 Gens) Generations. And many of these people have Masters, PhDs, MDs, etc.

        So, I think it is a tad unfair for Thomas and others to categorically tar and feather all in the Genetic Genealogy Community. Do we have weaknesses in the Genetic Genealogy Community … sure we do … but we also do alot right and Mark Thomas DOES NOT include that angle in his spin. Where’s the HONEST PEER REVIEW in his recent article?

        Many consider Doug McDonald a gracious and unsung hero in the Genetic Genealogy Community and this is what he expressed to me on all this:

        “Well, they (Thomas and others) are mostly correct in FACT.
        But not correct in SPIN.
        DNA, more precisely autosomal, CAN tell you in general terms where a person is from. The farther apart, geographically, the ansestors are, the more clearly.
        And in a FEW cases, of which I personally am THE best example, it can tell who you exceedingly likely descend from in the year 1365, in the pure male (Y-DNA) line. This time next year it is likely we be able to tell up for 100% certain. This is because of the good paper trail genealogy of the Clan Donald chiefs, and their willingness to do the DNA tests.”

        • razibkhan

          well, thomas’ headline was a bit much. but you seem really, really, pissed. the truth will win out. obviously i think there’s a lot of value in genetic genealogy. but the *british* press in particular has been unleashing a lot of stupid stuff over the years, and that’s thomas’ primary focus. as you say, there has been some indirect impacts, and i hope that thomas & colleagues will clarify that (some other geneticists on twitter, such as graham coop, were also concerned about the strength of the claims bleeding into more legit inferences).

    • Sandgroper

      Thomas has made some dumb comments of his own, I suspect because he was being Anglocentric. AFAIAC he can do what he likes to Wilson and Moffat, but he’d better leave Anne Wojcicki alone because she’s my God.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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