A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes

When I was given permission to Telework, I was worried without the ninety or so minutes of time commuting each working day I’d never be able to read all twenty or more books I normally read in a year, or for that matter the next book following The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. But, rest assured, cleary I did and now I’m here to talk about it.

Adam Rutherford, no relation to Ernest, weaves an interesting survey of what Deoxyribonucleic Acid has contributed to our modern understanding of biology. He starts off talking about how humanity is like a braided stream, with genetic lines splitting and then re-emerging between Homo Neanderthalis, Homo Denisova, Homo Floresiensis, and other potential Hominin people lurking around Eurasia around the Wisconsin Glacial Period.

He then talks about how in ancient times, Europe was united under various different tribes, some coming from the East, some coming from the South, and how Europe was transformed by these migrations and that most Europeans today are descended from those Eastern Invaders and in that sense Europe was united long ago, when we were still in the Upper Paleolithic, until the advent of Agriculture in the Neolithic Age.

Next, Rutherford investigates the origin of the American Indian cultures. He tells the story of Kennewick Man in much detail and why it’s so hard to get American Indians to consent to being genetically sequenced. Despite these difficulties, he does show that American Indians all probably descent from a single migration over the Bering Strait and how the Inuit have genetic modifications for low oxygen environments, similar to the Tibetans.

The next part gets a little heady. The idea that we are all descended from Charlemagne isn’t too hard to believe but the idea that we could be descended from folks from the Andaman Islands or Australian Aborigines seems to be pushing it. When you think about it, the base logic is correct. Going back twenty generations you have over a million man great grandparents, and over thirty you have over a billion. Clearly, if each generation averages twenty years, in six thousand years time you do have in theory one billion ancestors, but as there wasn’t a billion people six thousand years ago, clearly there must be some inbreeding. Not necessarily first cousin inbreeding, but maybe seventh or eighth cousin a remove or two would be commonplace.

The problem is when you think that this implies that everyone alive back then who had a child must be your ancestor is a false premise. One can guess the amount of inbreeding, but in truth, it’s possible, and even probable, that the inbreeding is even tighter than the whole population of six thousand years ago. It seems more logical, even if the clusters of today are different than the population clusters from back then, that the Australians at least were isolated until 1606, when Europeans started coming there. With only four hundred years contact, I’m highly dubious I’m descended from a single Aborigine from six thousand years ago, despite many of those Aborigines having descendants alive today. Charlemagne, maybe, but not everyone who ever lived six thousand years ago.

I did, however, like the story of Richard Ⅲ‘s discovery and it’s comparison to the insane idea that we could find Jack the Ripper in a used hankie. Great presentation of how to do bad and good science. The discussion of Francis Galton was also interesting, as there is stuff to admire the statistical genius with so much racism in his heart.

The topic of Race was an interesting one As Rutherford is half-South-Asian, I know that he would have suffered discrimination in the United Kingdom and of course feel for him. As a half-Jew, I have noted very little Jewish discrimination in the United States, apart from tourists from Europe, but when I do go to Europe, especially the farther East I go, I do notice a distinct hint of Anti-Semitism there. Nothing to write home about, just the random bloke who clearly has a problem with my nose.

However, I will say I think it’s excellent the way Rutherford points out there are more differences within race than there are distinguishing genetic characteristics within a race. I would, though, love to have red hair—well, to be honest, I’d love to have any hair, but that’s another story.

The discussion of SNPs and GWAS. There’s a great discussion of why it’s so hard to find the causes of diseases. After all, it’s very unlikely a SNP change in a single protein expression will change a behavior. And even the known genetic defects can have gene modifiers. The discussion of how heritable certain characteristics are was also fascinating. And the definition of epigenetics was a great new wrinkle. The only element missing is the influence of the bacterial flora that also influences our behavior.

Finally, it was nice to ground us in what evolution can and cannot do. The HOX Genes discussion was fun, as I do like the idea of a HOX d2 gene added to make a great story. And also, it’s interesting that GWAS can’t find an evil gene. I still blame testosterone for much of the evil in the world, but clearly even that hormone can’t be the only element at the root of modern violence. Indeed, if we could eliminate child abuse, we would go a very long way to solving many of what ills our society.

In summary, genetics is a wonderful tool in the development of biological understanding, but I wonder just what our current trends in slow evolution will bring. Only time will tell.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes

Next up, The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis, another book without a commute, with three weeks to complete…

Hope to see you in person soon, my sapiosexual friends!

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