Once again, each of these elaborate hunting rituals changes very slowly. Furthermore, because of famine, disease, or not having any sons, a family's hunting ritual and its variants die out. Let's assume that all but one of the original rituals and their variants disappear. Thus in the village we can find only one of the few original rituals, dating back Y thousand years, and its many variants, and thus conclude that all existing rituals derive from the original one, the analogue of a genetic Adam.
Note that X and Y need not be equal since recipes and hunting rituals will no doubt change and die out at different rates, so our genetic Eve did not meet our genetic Adam (and both, of course, had parents, grandparents, and other progenitors).
There is, however, much more in Journey than this absence of a prehistoric romance. As mentioned, the bulk of the book examines how geneticists study small changes in the DNA of our Y-chromosomes and use the rate at which they naturally occur as a sort of molecular clock to determine when and where various groups and clans of our prehistoric ancestors split off and spread over the earth (along the coast of India to Australia, later into Eurasia, and then down to the Americas across the Bering Sea).
If we know where we originated, and if a distinct recipe or ritual and its descendants, to revert to our metaphor, appears only in a neighboring village, then this (along with much other evidence) indicates that these people left the original village at a certain time. And if their descendants' recipes and rituals appear only in an even more distant village, then these others left still later.
The common childhood game in which we change, a letter at a time, one sequence of letters into another — say GENE to GONE to GORE to MORE to MARE to MARS — also sheds some light on what geneticists do when analyzing the branching changes in the very long sequence of "letters" that constitute our DNA. If each of the changing sequences of letters also gave rise to other changing sequences of letters and if some of these sequences split off and moved to different physical locations, we would be led to the sort of considerations and methods that are described in The Journey of Man.
We've come a long way, and the fascinating, sometimes counterintuitive details of the trip are finally becoming a little clearer.
Professor of mathematics at Temple University and winner of the 2003 American Association for the Advancement of Science award for the promotion of public understanding of science, John Allen Paulos is the author of several best-selling books, including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market. His Who’s Counting? column on ABCNEWS.com appears the first weekend of every month.