The Human Family Tree – National Geographic

The Human Family Tree is a 2-hour documentary that explains why race is an optical illusion.  The show will be repeated 09/06/09 at 1pm, but is also available on Netflix now.  Because of the wonders of DNA and genetic markers, scientists are able to trace the migrations of human populations back to their origins in Africa.  Be sure and watch the show until the end, where the filmmakers do a wonderful trick with their participants.  At the beginning of the show, project director Spencer Wells visits a street fair in Queens, New York and his team takes cheek swaps from crowds of people, all claiming to be immigrants from all over the world.  Many people volunteer and their stories get told during the documentary.  Most of these people expect the DNA to confirm their family genealogy that they cherish and has been handed down to them by word of mouth and photos.

At the end of the show the filmmakers meet outdoors in a giant field and have all the volunteers stand in groups based on the prominent markers in their DNA.  The groups are roughly arranged like a map of the world.  Many of the people whose stories were featured on the show are surprised by what their biology reveals, like one black man grouped with the Europeans and one Puerto Rican woman grouped with Native Americans.

The show is full of wonderful computer animation, beautiful high-definition filmed sequences from all over the world and staged scenes that act out what life was like tens of thousand of years ago.  Science really has learned vast libraries of statistical knowledge from combining anthropology and DNA research.  What it shows is racial characteristics are insignificant compared to all the rest of our traits.  Essentially humans are almost identical, far more so than other animal species.  We may look very different, but our DNA tells us otherwise.  In fact, one of the more interesting tidbits to come out of the show is that Africa is the most genetically diverse continent because it’s population is the oldest.

Watching this documentary makes an excellent companion to the book I am listening to, The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, which explores the rise of religion across the globe starting with hunting and gathering societies.  Wright measures the development of religion by how well it deals with ethnic diversity.  Even though humans are all alike, we’ve always been very xenophobic, and the presentation of The Human Family Tree would be in accordance to the highest spiritual development in religious philosophy as explored by Wright. 

It would be fascinating to chronicle the religious history against the histories of the various migrating populations that the DNA markers reveal.  Would it be possible to follow the paths of memes like paths of genetic material in our blood?  The majority of the world’s worshipers in God build their beliefs on the political and social conflicts of one tiny group of people, living in one tiny part of the world, concerning events that happened two and three thousand years ago, while ignoring all the religious practices of vast hordes of people that migrated all over the globe.  But then most of those religions were tied to local ethnocentric and highly xenophobic tribes.  We are becoming global on so many levels.

The Human Family Tree makes social, philosophical and political statements through it’s work with exploring the science of DNA, with implications that are far greater than teaching us about human migration patterns.  As graphically illustrated in the show, everyone has two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, and if you follow the math it doesn’t take that many generations until you are related to nearly everyone on Earth.

Most people don’t know much about their ancestors beyond their grandparents or maybe one of their great grandparents, so they imagine their heritage coming from one individual.  But if you go back a few hundred years and had to picture yourself the product of 128 or 256 individuals, what can you claim to be?  It’s hard enough to spot traits you get from two parents, so why imagine yourself to be the product of any race, culture, country, or other identity?  All we can be is the human we are at the moment and any cultural heritage is just silly pretending.

JWH – 9/4/9

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