these occur outside Africa. The small size of the departing population would have increased the chances of its following a different evolutionary path from the host population in Africa because it created the conditions for the important kind of evolutionary change known as genetic drift. Natural selection is the better known agent of evolutionary change but drift is also powerful, and the smaller the population, the more quickly drift acts. The mechanism of drift is the purely random way in which about half of a parent's genes get passed on to a child and half are discarded.^ Depending on the luck of the draw, some versions of a gene become more common in a population as one generation succeeds another, while others grow rarer. Eventually one version of a gene may become universal while all the alternative versions are lost. This is what has happened in the cases of the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA. In terms of evolution's overall process, drift is the counterpart to mutation. Mutation constantly injects novelty into the genome, and in each generation drift sweeps novelty away. Natural selection draws on this flux, using it to keep each species adapted to the changing environment.
Since drift is random, the versions of a gene that it makes universal may be good or bad. For the most part, though, they are neutral, in geneticists' parlance, because they make no difference to an organism's survival. The smaller a population, the fewer generations it takes for a particular version of a gene to become universal. So drift would have been enhanced among the small group that left Africa and in its far-flung descendants as they spread out across the world. The human population as a whole probably existed for many millennia as small, largely separate groups, because distance and territoriality would have deterred any substantial mixing of peoples. Those who left Africa carried only a slice of the full genetic diversity of the human population, and the size of the slice allows an estimate to be made of the emigrants' numbers. Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the Univer sity of Maryland, has calculated that the number of modern humans who left Africa
Was this article helpful?