Battlestar Galactica and Mitochondrial Eve
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Battlestar Galactica and Mitochondrial Eve

I wanted to post a few thoughts on last night’s Battlestar Galactica series. I watched the entire series, from the miniseries/pilot to the big finish last night, and found the quality to be somewhat uneven. Its high points were very high, but it had plenty of low points as well.

The biggest spoiler I saw going into the finale was series creator Ron Moore saying in the special about the show’s production that the show was about the characters, not about the plot. I think that showed from beginning to end — the best parts of the show were very much character-driven rather than plot driven.

So, as to the ending. When the survivors arrive on Earth, Baltar informs them that they are DNA-compatible with the primitive humans that they find. Then in the present-day flash forward, we are made to understand that Hera, the child who is the key to the survival of humans and cylons, is Mitochondrial Eve. There really is a Mitochondrial Eve — she is the earliest common ancestor all humans alive right now share. (I believe she lived about 90,000 years ago, so the 150,000 number on the show is wrong.)

What this implies is that none of the humans or cylons who wind up on Earth (other than Hera) are able to successfully reproduce, or that all of their progeny die out. Hera’s offspring are the only ones who make it. And indeed, none of the indigenous residents of Earth will have produced successful offspring, except through Hera. So she’s not a MacGuffin — she turns out to be the only path forward for humans or cylons. And one could also argue that this is what the Harbinger of Death prophecy that the hybrid gives Starbuck meant as well — nobody but Hera has a future.

Distributing the surviving colonials around the planet to increase the odds of survival can be inferred to be a complete failure. For the Mitochondrial Eve plot point to work out, those colonies must all fail. So what appears to be an up ending is really a down ending, although I’m not sure the writers thought through it enough to see it that way.

The research that led to the discovery of Mitochondrial Eve is interesting. I’d suggest The Journey of Man, an excellent book on the subject by geneticist Spencer Wells.

Update: Be sure to read the comments, it seems I didn’t understand the scientific meaning of Mitochondrial Eve as well as I might have thought.

16 thoughts on “Battlestar Galactica and Mitochondrial Eve

  1. “There really is a Mitochondrial Eve — she is the earliest common ancestor all humans alive right now share.”

    No, she’s the last common matrilineal ancestor of all living humans- all humans alive today have her mitochondrial DNA. She is NOT, however, the last common ancestor of all humans alive today. And she has been dated statistically to have lived about 140,000 years ago. It should be remembered though that this does not mean that other women didn’t leave descendants whose are still alive. Mitochondrial-DNA is only inherited on the female side; a woman who had 10 male children but no females would be a mitochondrial dead end, but could have theoretically millions of descendants alive today.

    Also, Mitochondrial Eve is not a static individual; a thousand years from now there will be a different one; and a thousand years ago there was a different one. Even if Hera was M-Eve today, it doesn’t really mean anything important. She won’t always be, and she wasn’t always so.

    More disturbing is the complete re-write of human prehistory/history that would need to be made to fit space aliens and their Cylons into our ancestry. I found the finale a real slap in the face to those who followed the show for so long. For me it was the worst case scenario for an ending.

  2. I don’t think it means that all of the rest of the progeny die out, just that all of their progeny end up reproducing with someone whose ancestor is Eve, right?

    I’m not one who’s followed BSG, just think about what it means to be able to trace a portion of DNA back to a common ancestor.

  3. I for one enjoyed the show from start to finish. Its been a great ride. Amazing group of actors and crew. Music was awesome of course thanks to Bear McCreary.

    I have to say though, cmon people. This is a tv show. This is fantasy. Why must some pick it apart as if Ron Moore is telling you this is OUR history. It’s a story… nothing more.

  4. Along the same lines as “The Journey of Man”, “The Seven Daughters of Eve” by Bryan Sykes was an interesting and enjoyable read. I also have “The Real Eve: Modern Man’s Journey Out of Africa” by Stephen Oppenheimer but have not gotten around to reading it yet.

  5. Actually the excepted estimate is that Mitochondrial Eve lived between 90,000 and 150,000 years ago so therefore what you believe is of no relevance to the plot of the story they just took the end date to make the evolution easier.

    Also, it can be said that the colonies of man did produce successfully etc but Mitochondrial Eve is the earliest common ancestor of us the other colonies could have produced for example homo egaster etc which died out over time.

    Hera is the first common ancester of which her children, her children’s children etc gave rise to the population as we see it today. Mother’s pass the X chromosomes and so at one point in our species history everyone can trace there lineage back to this one person.

    Also, to the first commenter “Rob” the ending was good especially as they never gave a time frame as to when the show was set. Actually a complete rewrite would not be needed as much due to the fact that most of what we currently know is just conjecture from fossils and ice cores as to the state of the planet that far back.

  6. One thing I think We could argue . the first location they figured was Earth ( the 13th colony ), but destroyed. According to Colonial scriptures, humans lived on Kobol with their gods, the Lords of Kobol. Conflict between the gods made the tribes leave Kobol and after a long long time 12 returned. This tells me that the technology and time lines would have been very similar. thus leading to the conclusion ( at least mine ) that the first location was most likely Earth. ( at least originally ) The second location they called Earth out of desperation ( they were tired more or less ) This new planet is an entirely diffrent planet then Earth I feel . so Hara would be mitochondrial eve ( She has both human and cylon dna ) also, Everyone from the ships was already human ( but not early human ) there dna would fit in just fine. And of coarse after writing all of this I now wonder .. would the first Earth be us in the future or would the second be our past …. Hhhhmmmmmmm. I hope I didnt over analyze this .

  7. We never should imply that mytochondrial eve is the only common link that all humans have genetically. On the contrary, how many places do we dig up around the planet. Eve is only a needle in the haystack. We humans have devised very clever ways to “get rid of the bodies” other than simple burial. I would more likely want to believe that if life is cyclic and continues to repeat in a chains of events that are variant, than we need to dig more and more until we do find the truth about our very existance. I find it hard to simply believe that all of this, all we have created, learned..the wars we fought, the ways we found to make technology better, our imaginations, and all we have become amount to a bunch of monkeys or a cesspool of slime.

    We may have created the cycle of human life and evolution millions upon millions of years ago. We may have had great societies for more advanced than what we see before us. The theory of spreading us out over the surface of the earth to increase the chances of survival is a valid theory. We just have not found more of the bodies.

    The show “Life after Humans” is a shining example. In the show they will not talk about what took us out, only what happens to man’s footprints. Nature will reclaim everything. They show how buildings crumble into mounds and plant life takes over. Soil recreates over everything and eventually we end up with hills, valleys, rivers, streams and greenery. We focus on digging up the known world. Maybe we should look under our own carpets. My arguement validating this possiblity would be the face on Mars. Could that be a monument buried under millions of years of dirt and rubble? Could Mars have been another human colony that suffered a cataclismic event? Until we can get up there with heavy equipment and dig it out we will never know.

    The lack of prehistoric advance technology could very well be attributed to the fact that the show basically took the “Cortez” path buy sending it all to be burned up by the Sun. Remember Cortez burned all of his ships upon reaching the new world.

    Now, we all satand on the preciface of the cycle breaking through with the advent of space travel, artificial intelligence and so on.

    Eve coaxed Adam into biting the apple.

    History has a funny habit of repeating itself.

  8. You miss understand mitochondrial eve, it DOES NOT IMPLY THAT ALL other decendants died out.

    As you forget that Eve must have had an Adam to produce the next generation.

    I.e. all reproduced, for many, many generations but only those that mated with hera’s decendants eventually survived as they had a small genetic advanatge, that would have made itself felt at time of stress, i.e. an ice age which wipes out most of mankind leaving perhaps a few hundred alive, from which hera’s decedants continued etc… which is exactly how it happened in real life.

    And yes the time frame for eve is 150,000 to 180,000 years ago , so the show is correct.

  9. Yes – if examined precisely, the show gets the science wrong. “Mitochondrial Eve” is a roving identifier – just like “president” or “most recent 2 billion dollar lottery winner.” For each generation, for each moment, the individual woman who contributed DNA to every single living human on the planet changes. But this misses the bigger point: BG creators were trying to say: hey! All life, all humanity comes from the unification of difference! So why can’t we all just get along?” Which is a message I find both compelling and disturbing. It’s not actually a new idea: indeed all of the babymaking accomplished through heterosexual sex is the bringing together, and subsumation of difference. What disturbs me is when the idealogy gets place on to the biology: Hera is meant to represent something “new” – she’s a cylon/human hybrid. She’s also of mixed race – but the threat of newness, of actual difference, of actual radicality gets subsummed almost immediatly within a heteronormative ideaology– to the extent that her parents are symbolically replaced with the ultimate heterosexual, white couple: Balthar and Six.

  10. I just finishing watching the series–I was late to the BSG game and watched the DVDs. And I say I very much liked the series and the finale. But for my own curiosity, @”Rob”, I am interested in what you mean by this: “More disturbing is the complete re-write of human prehistory/history that would need to be made to fit space aliens and their Cylons into our ancestry. I found the finale a real slap in the face to those who followed the show for so long. For me it was the worst case scenario for an ending.”

    This topic (Mitochondrial Eve) is completely new to me and I’m interested in the science that Rob is referring too; and am completely intrigued with this. Any thoughts let me know.

  11. I, too was late in getting into this show. I watched the whole series on DVD. The show had it’s ups and downs, but all in all I liked it. The first and last episodes, in my opinion, were definitely the best. I was bummed out when they lost the Pegasus, that was a cool ship, but the show was called Battlestar Galactica, so, I guess they couldn’t keep two battlestars in the show.

    I liked how the writers ended the show. I believe the writers were merely presenting a possibility. History that far back is unclear, and it poses a question. Did modern humans originate on Earth? I’d like to think so, but there is no clear evidence to support an answer either way. The universe is billions of years old, and modern humans have been walking the earth for a few hundred thousand years. Why couldn’t there be another planet out there somewhere that was formed millions of years before this solar system, and had a planet form that had the same environment as this one, and humans evolve on it. Their technology would have grown on a similar timeline as ours but millions of years earlier. They became explorers, and somehow, some of them wound up here. I’m sure there are plenty of folks who will read this and think I’m nuts. I may be dead wrong, but before passing judgment, is there conclusive evidence out there to confirm this is indeed impossible? I’m quite certain it won’t be in my lifetime, but I’d like to think we humans will someday be able to colonize another planet. If we have the ambition to do so, what’s to say there wasn’t anyone before us? I think I can confidently say I don’t think there are any cylons out there, though :)

  12. “I’d like to think so, but there is no clear evidence to support an answer either way.”

    Actually, yeah, there is pretty clear evidence to support that humans almost certainly evolved on this planet, as did all other live we’ve examined so far.

    This means, as far as BSG is concerned, that one of the following possibilities exists:

    1. The BSG group was basically the “B Ark” and all other life on earth died out and quickly re-evolved from them in the blink of 150,000 years.

    2. The BSG group all died out without making much of an impact at all.

    3. There is no detectable difference, genetically, between the BSG group and the species on Earth suggesting that it’s more likely the BSG gang simply came, originally, from Earth, maybe a few hundred thousand years ago or so.

  13. While I really loved the show overall mostly the dramatic character storylines it presented,I was a little dissapointed with the ending mythology for the series. The “God” did it ending and all technology is bad so lets go back to unsanitary conditions and hope you live to see 30? Something much cooler and more befitting something resembling the original intent of the real creator of the show should’ve been used. Why not have the fleet be the forefathers of Atlantis? High tech and mystical society that eventually dissapears again. It would’ve gone along with the “it’s all happened before and it will all happen again storyline”. The Centurions go back on their deal and they are the ones who sink Atlantis.

  14. Yes Dan, I kind of agree that would have been the most satisfying answer, except it was also the most obvious answer, and Ron Moore from the get go was always saying how he “didn’t want to do the expected thing “that would be to much like television”.

    Also, I have to say I really admire people who can turn off their brains and enjoy anything based on the concept that its just entertainment. I like my entertainment to make sense, I don’t care what genre it is. I like to think that the artist cared enough to think something out and present it to me so that I can admire the ingenuity and thoughtfulness that went into the work.

    I like BSG, I really do, but I don’t like it so much that I’m going to go through mental gymnastics to make all the the plot holes and bad story ideas make sense. The moral to the story is. Don’t write a television series without a plan! Outlines are good things, it doesn’t lead to bad televisions, it leads to logical, satisfying drama.

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