Research for dating
Years later, a ruler declares one of those copies the definitive manuscript, and a rush is on to make many copies of that version — so whatever changes from the original are in this presumed important copy become widely disseminated.
Scientists attempt to date genetic changes by tracing back to such spread, using a statistical model that assumes genes have a certain mutation rate over time.
Those criticisms are particularly important, Collins said, because Lahn's testing did find geographic differences in populations harboring the gene variants today.
They were less common in sub-Saharan African populations, for example.
"A different way to look at is it's almost impossible for evolution not to happen." Still, the findings also are controversial, because it's far from clear what effect the genetic changes had or if they arose when Lahn's "molecular clock" suggests — at roughly the same time period as some cultural achievements, including written language and the development of cities.
Rather than compare entire dictionaries, they used a list of 200 words that are found in all cultures, such as 'I', 'hunt' and 'sky'.
"The genetic evolution of humans in the very recent past might in some ways be linked to the cultural evolution," he said.
Other scientists urge great caution in interpreting the research.
Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson, of the University of Auckland in New Zealand use the rate at which words change to gauge the age of the tree's roots - just as biologists estimate a species' age from the rate of gene mutations.
The differences between words, or DNA sequences, are a measure of how closely languages, or species, are related.