The gene with a thousand faces

On hominids and the variety of skills imparted by their genetic makeup.

Peter Warland

“Each person has the same set of genes – about 20,000 in all. The differences between people come from slight variations in their genes. For example, all people have genes for hair colour and different versions of these genes dictate whether someone will be a redhead or a brunette. There also might be some chemistry involved.” A Google explanation

Right in front of me here is a story that I clipped from this esteemed paper some time ago. I was delighted that the editor elected to run this news item because it piqued my curiosity and actually roused me from the usual evening stupor.

The article is about the Denisovan gene that, apparently, allows some people, like the Tibetans, the Han Chinese and some Sherpas, to live well at extremely high altitudes.

I was charmed to read that the Denisovan gene had been inherited from the extinct people (hominids, not proper humans like us) whose remains were found in a Siberian cave. These hominids were living the life of Reilly, even high on the hog, 50,000 years ago but, even though they had that special gene, still died.

Despite cries of anguish from some folk, most of us now believe that human beings didn’t suddenly appear on the earth, out of sea-shells, from the ground with corn, or from some fanciful garden with serpents. They evolved slowly in Africa somewhere then moved out and gradually spread across the world, arriving somewhat late in the Americas.

When I heard about all of this I was horrified to realize that folk arrived in Australia before they stumbled upon England’s green and pleasant land and invented soccer.

I am now so old that I remember the Piltdown Man scam. This was back in the early 20th century when some rogue seeking fame and fortune claimed that he had unearthed the remains of a creature that was part monkey and part human, and was one of our ancestors on his way to becoming human. It was a paleoanthropological hoax — I love that word and use it often when I play Scrabble.

Eventually, it was discovered that the remains consisted of the lower jawbone of an orangutan (a kind of ape) deliberately combined with the cranium of a fully developed modern human and would have looked a bit like a professional wrestler or a Toronto mayor.

Of course, this hoax was perpetrated before we all knew about genes and DNA and stuff, right?

Take the example of the chimpanzees. Some scientists, probably with dandruff raining from their heads, have stated that there never was a creature that was half ape and half human; it’s just that we and chimpanzees, for example, have common ancestors. If we could trace a female chimp’s lineage back through the mothers for a few hundred thousand generations or so we’d discover an ancestor that didn’t look like a chimpanzee. Then, if we followed another of that creature’s female children forward through a few million years to the present, we might find ourselves with a bunch of trouble in the form of a human female, probably like your great aunt Matilda, the one that goes ape and tongue-lashes everyone in sight.

In fact, we’d find if we were looking through a microscope for a long, long time at a one-celled critter living in a murky primeval sea billions of years ago, it might be the ancestor of all life forms, and that includes sperm whales, banana palms, grizzly bears, mosquitos and even some of your neighbours (some of whom falsely claim that they came from the Ukraine).

Incidentally, there are probably other folk who do not live in the high regions of Central Asia but have that Denisovan gene; you might be lucky to be one. Several folk have climbed Everest and sundry other Himalayan peaks without the aid of supplemental oxygen.

Some people have another gene that enables them to stay under water for much longer than most folk.

There is almost certainly some gene that some people have that enables them to read my drivel without going stark raving mad.