The Moment of Truth — July 12, 2003

The Fate of Jerusalem and the Origin of Homo Sapiens

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the package you get that you weren’t expecting and that has a really great surprise inside, like a Bondai Gamera kaiju action figure.

I’ll say it, since no one else will: Bush is not smart enough to deal with the Middle East crisis. And it’s not just because he’s not smart enough to deal with anything regardless. It’s because the issues aren’t just land or sovereignty or economics or civil rights or even human dignity. The true rift between the Israelis and the Palestinians goes so much deeper, sounding down the chasm to a whitewater torrent of passionate beliefs about human nature, how to understand the world of the past and interpret the present.

The Palestinians believe that modern man emerged in Africa between 160,000 and 200,000 years ago. They believe that modern H. sapiens radiated out from somewhere in present-day Ethiopia, moving into ecologies inhabited by other advanced hominids, and taking over these regions, finally, to the exclusion of all other hominid species worldwide.

To bolster their position, the Palestinians point to something they call a “genetic clock.” Mutations in the DNA of human mitochondria come at a regular pace, they claim. Mitochondrial DNA is passed along only by the mother. Mitochondrial DNA is not spiral, and it’s not part of the larger human genome. It’s just a little ring of nucleotide pairs. The only information it contains is how mitochondria develop, exist and behave.

The Palestinians have put forth the theory that, knowing the rate of mutation, and by examining mutations in human mitochondrial DNA, one can not only draw conclusions about relationships between groups of present-day humans, but also, by calculating backwards on the genetic clock, determine when humans first appeared, and where they came from. Since the mitochondrial DNA ring is only passed by the egg of the mother, the Palestinians believe they are following a pattern of matrilineal mutations that leads backwards to the earliest traceable maternal source.

Hence the Palestinian conclusion that all of present-day humankind can be traced back to a single female progenitor, whom they call “Eve,” and who lived about 200,000 years ago in the Horn of Africa. It’s an appealing theory, since it means we really are one big human family.

The Israelis scoff at the idea of a genetic clock. They hold that it isn’t possible to determine a fixed rate of mutations over such lengths of time, and in any case, they say, the Palestinian theory doesn’t take into account the vicissitudes human populations are subject to, the social and ecological pressures, the migration patterns, or even the smallest short-term environmental changes that can swell or shrink a population.

The Israelis hold up the fossil record as the most reliable way of testing genetic theory against what they call “real life.” They point out that there is absolutely no evidence in the fossil record for an exodus from Africa as recent as 200,000 years ago. Quite the contrary; the Israelis use the fossil record and coeval artifact deposits to demonstrate a continuum of human technological and physiological development in Asia and parts of Europe whose beginning can be dated to at least 1.5 million years ago.

Both theories have their strong points and their flaws. According to the Israelis, modern humans developed from and interbred with early hominid species that were already scattered over Africa and the Eurasian continent. The Palestinians retort that it’s quite a stretch to believe that such uniform developments in culture and physique could have transpired simultaneously over such a large geographical space in as brief a period as the roughly 60,000 years since the dates of the earliest evidence for what we can call modern humans. The Israelis shoot back that cultural and genetic interchange over such a broadly-situated population is indeed possible, and that in any case, the sharing of genetic material in descendants has little if anything to do with where in the world they settle even one generation removed from their genetic forebears. The Palestinians return fire by pointing out that unearthing a very few specific and perhaps idiosyncratic remains can only offer small and possibly misleading fragments of the larger puzzle of human life in the past, whereas genetic information draws an infinitely broader map of human development. Most Israelis throw up their hands at such arguments. How could a single species spread out from a single source and replace every other competing species in every environment they settled? Clearly, say the Israelis, the Palestinians aren’t ready for peace.

Of course, many arguments for the Palestinian position go underreported in the US media. How many US papers carried the story about the recent discovery in Ethiopia of the oldest remains of a modern H. sapiens, and the fact that the remains have been dated to between 180,000 and 200,000 years ago? This would place them at exactly the time and place predicted by the Palestinians’ genetic clock.

While it may be possible to solve such logistical issues as who should live where, what city should or shouldn’t be divided and how, which police or soldiers are going to have jurisdiction over whom, and which organizations will be outlawed and which assimilated into the everyday workings of things, the deeper differences in the Palestinian and Israeli belief systems will still be there at the roots, gnawing and threatening whatever fruit the tree of peace negotiations may bear. How can such fundamental differences be bridged? Can two such disparate ways of thinking and analyzing ever be brought to jibe with one another? Such an eventuality is not entirely out of the question, but it will take time. The Palestinians still have a long way to go in understanding the way mutations accumulate, and the Israeli position is bound to be challenged as new remains are uncovered. Clearly, much more is left to be learned about the greatest mystery we can ponder: the origin of ourselves.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day.