Category: Book Review

The Devil is in the Detail

Details, Details, Details

Critical Lens: In his book, Bryan Sykes does a lot of good things (see, “What’s the Verdict”), however, his book is far (and I mean far) from perfect. First of all, the title makes me cringe: for a book that only explores the origins of Europeans, it seems awfully problematic that the title be called the The Seven Daughters of Eve, as if there were only seven important women rearing our ancestry. Additionally, Sykes has a bit of a condescending tone in his descriptions of his contemporaries and even his team members. He also incorporates a plethora of speculative claims and anecdotes throughout the book (aside from his seven daughters imagination tangent), which if you are not careful, can be misleading. An example of this is throughout his discussion of the Polynesian people and their origins. Although he genetically proves their relatedness to Asia rather than South America, he goes on to narrate the sequence of events that led to their movement from Asia to the Polynesian islands. Except, instead of writing this in a way that clarifies his reliance on speculation, Sykes writes as if he just finished reading a detailed history of the Polynesians. Furthermore, Sykes has brief moments of head-shaking disappointment, such as when he describes the discovery and analysis of DNA and gives all the credit to none other than Watson and Crick, rather than also citing Rosalind Franklin. Lastly, it would not be unreasonable to question why Sykes transitioned to a heavily fictional style for the final third of the book. After all, it is supposed  to be nonfiction and, quite honestly, usually when someone chooses to read a nonfiction book, it is because they want to read…well, nonfiction. Aside from these issues, Sykes really does do a good job. None of his claims or descriptions, to the best of my knowledge, are blatantly false or incorrect, and he supports his conclusions with, you guessed it, research!

What did I learn? 

Oh boy, did I learn a lot. Having taken a few years-worth of Biology curriculum in high school and now college, much of the first third of Sykes book offered me little more than a basic recap of the concepts that I have learned over and over again since high school Biology. However, throughout the middle third of the book, I began learning all sorts of things. For example, I learned about what a scientific research process looks like in action, play-by-play, from the genesis of an idea to the defense of a conclusion. I found myself engulfed in Sykes’ anecdotal stories of the Polynesians, the last Tsar, and the Neanderthals. Pretty much everything Sykes discussed regarding the former two subjects was news to me, and although I had already learned about Neanderthals, I still managed to learn a thing or two. Lastly, and most importantly, I learned about how modern Europeans can each trace their ancestry back to one of seven women. This, in my opinion, is absolutely remarkable and quite simply brilliant, and I really do feel all the better for coming away with this knowledge.

What more?

In outlining Sykes’ journey in discovering the “seven daughters” of Europe, I really think that this book accomplished its goal. However, it ultimately leaves me wondering: what about the rest of the world? How many “clans” can be attributed to Africa or Asia? And how different does their mitochondrial DNA look from modern European DNA? 

Should YOU read it?

  1. If you are curious about or interested in the thrill of cutting edge, novel research but are by no means an expert nor intend on becoming an expert, you would probably really like this book. The book offers a very digestible story-like structure following Sykes fascinating research into European ancestry. It never becomes too technical nor does it ever set out to cover every single, and yet it still offers a heaping serving of science!
  2. If you hate science, on the other hand…start liking it, and then read this book!
  3. If you are simply interested in the age-old question of “what is my origin,” you would also probably get a lot out of this book (well, unless you are anything other than European…yikes). Why, you ask? Well, because the book is literally about European ancestry. Please tell me you read at least some of my website.
  4. If you love some good ‘ol realistic fiction, read the last third of this book. It’s fiction, but based on a little bit of nonfiction: amazing!

What’s the Verdict?

The Review

Title: The Seven Daughters of Eve

Author: Bryan Sykes

Genre: Biological Anthropology

Audience: General Audience; Adult; Science Enthusiasts

In The Seven Daughters of Eve, Bryan Sykes presents himself as the protagonist in an undeniably remarkable quest for ancestral closure. Well, at least for Europeans (sorry, everyone else). Sykes appropriately begins his epic narrative by going over the very basics. He explains DNA, basic inheritance, and mitochondrial DNA in as simplistic and clear manner as a person with a PhD probably can. Honestly, he does a pretty good job of doing this, taking what feels like a majority of the book laying out the very basics so that, as the bits and pieces of his complex intellectual narrative begin to become more and more difficult to follow, there is no confusion on the reader’s part. 

Sykes next goes into what seems to be a five-chapter-long pat-on-the-back as he recounts how he uncovered the long-disputed origins of the Polynesian people, aided in solving the great mystery of the last Russian Tsar, and triumphantly concluded that Neanderthals did, indeed, go extinct. However egotistic it might have seemed in the moment, in retrospect, these anecdotes importantly served to clarify how Sykes and his team were able to arrive at their peak accomplishment: the origins of all Europeans.

The book then takes a turn, narrating the contentious process of discovery and backlash in science. Sykes, eager to make his discovery known, is met with opposition from a handful of particularly stubborn researchers in the field of paleoanthropology. Were multi-regionalists right or those who swore by the replacement theory? Did the Neanderthals and all of the other early human species get overrun by farmers or hunter-gatherers? Were the first modern human inhabitants of Europe paleolithic hunter-gatherers or neolithic farmers? And, as we arrive at the climax of uncertainty in Sykes’ life-long research: is mitochondrial DNA even reliable? 

Ultimately, Sykes and his discovery remains unscathed by opposition as he systematically disproves each objection that arises. Modern Europeans, Sykes finally concludes, can trace their origins back to only seven women, ranging from 45,000 to 10,000 years ago. Six of these seven women were of the upper-paleolithic hunter-gatherers, while only one came from neolithic farmers. Sykes goes on to name these seven women, and, in a rather odd turn of events, endeavors to imagine what the lives of each one of these women looked like. Although this last portion of the book more clearly falls along the categorization of fiction rather than nonfiction, I simply cannot bring myself to say that this section was entirely pointless; maybe because I ended up really enjoying the infusion of imagination. Nonetheless, Sykes wraps up his great narrative and storytelling by reflecting on the remarkable nature of the human story, which obviously extends far greater than just the seven women whose lineages extended through generation upon generation of daughters until present day. Sykes reminds us that interspersed among these seven women and all of their descendents were other women, families, and dynasties that simply did not extend to the present day. Furthermore, in spite of the misleading title, there are a whole lot more than just seven clans and women to which humans can trace their ancestry. 

Sykes ultimately concludes his book in a sentimental tone, noting that knowledge like this makes nonsense of the meaningless racial classifications that humans tend to box each other into. And, despite its rather ‘chemical’ nature, DNA actually does a pretty darn good job of reconnecting us to the great mysteries of our past and enhancing our collective sense of self. 

Overall, not a bad read. Maybe you should give it a try!