The British geneticist Bryan Sykes has died, and The Guardian has an obituary from Georgina Ferry: “Bryan Sykes obituary”.
The human geneticist Bryan Sykes, who has died aged 73, pushed forward the analysis of inherited conditions such as brittle bone disease and double-jointedness, and was one of the first to extract DNA from ancient bone.
The same Bryan Sykes, holder of a personal chair at Oxford University, analysed hair supposedly taken from mythical hominids such as the Bigfoot and Yeti, and announced the results in a three-part television series. His delight in science and enthusiasm for communicating it to popular audiences were both aspects of an expansive personality that alternately inspired and exasperated his colleagues.
Sykes did much to popularize DNA ancestry in the U.K. It was interesting to read in the obituary that a fellowship from the British Association for the Advancement of Science placed him in a television organization for seven weeks, an experience that shaped much of his later writing and work.
I’ve been doing some reading on the early history of ancient DNA studies, and Sykes was a very important figure in the way that field took shape. Today it is probably hard to imagine how the early promotion and attempts to recover DNA from ancient remains were driven by people who took a hobbyist’s interest in the area.
It is impossible to write about Sykes without confronting the legacy of his book, The Seven Daughters of Eve. It was one of the most popular books written about genetics and history, and had a huge public influence—I often encounter people who learned about genetics from that book. It awakened in many people, and some scientists, a potential for uncovering events of the past in a highly personal way. The concept of seven women who embodied the ancestry of most living Europeans was evocative and brought a connection to prehistory alive for many readers.
The problem was that it is a fictionalized history. The book’s thesis was wrong in ways that were obvious at the time of its publication in 2001. In light of the last ten years of research on ancient DNA in European prehistory, Sykes’ ideas from the turn of the century seem surreal. Yet the echoes live on in popular renderings of prehistory.