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!

Putting SARS-CoV-2 into perspective

A lot is being said nowadays about how there are more cases of SARS-CoV-2 infections in the United States of America than in any other country, worldwide. The truth is, some countries just have more people than others. Indeed, there are only two counties with greater than a billion people and while China is likely deflating its numbers, India is just not reporting anything anyway. The third biggest nation, though, is these United States.

The United States is the biggest in the class of middle-sized countries, along with Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, and Nigeria, all with over two hundred million residents. You’d expect any of these top seven nations to have more cases than Nauru and Tuvalu, or even of France and Italy because there are much more people in these top seven countries than there are, by nature, in any of the smaller ones.

The long and short of this is that the proper way to compare infection rates is to do so relative to the population size. For instance, if the numbers are taken per million, you can see which counties are handling Covidapolis better than others. And that is exactly what the following graph shows.

SARS-CoV-2 Infections per Million per Country
This graph puts SARS-CoV-2 into perspective. A huge country like the United States or China should expect by virtue of just more people to have more cases than Italy. But when compared per million it’s clear that as of now, Italy is worse off, but we are headed there. So please, Shelter in Place, everyone!

As you can see, Italy is still ahead of the United States in terms of infections and mortality in terms of overall population size, but the United States isn’t abating and is on the road to match Italy of folks don’t properly Shelter in Place.

So please, my sapiosexual friends, just stay home.

Covid-19: Remember the Women

One thing that has been sincerely bothering me about this whole Covid scare that I mentioned a couple days ago—as if it wasn’t all over the media already—is how it will most adversely affect women who can least afford it.

The thing is, women aren’t just paid less for equal work in most professions and by many companies, but women also often have to make ends meet in the lowest paying jobs, taking the double hit of low-wage work and lower pay than their male counterparts.

Add to that self-quarantining that South Korea, Italy, and now the United States are doing, at least in a patchwork of states. Many white-collar jobs offering benefits like telework and paid sick leave. But on the lower end of the economic scale, you have women working jobs in the service industry, such as in restaurants or retail. Although some retailers are also offering paid sick leave, it looks like Congress will not require it and so workers are at the whim of their employers when it comes to containing the virus.

Consider, therefore, for a moment, what a single mother who is working in a restaurant. She is paid below minimum wage, a practice under the dangerous assumption that she can make it up in tips. Add to this she has her children home from school so even if she’s healthy she may still need the time off. If she gets the time off, even paid time off, though, she’s still deprived of her tips.

Interestingly, under Virginia law, a server can be paid as little as $2.13 per hour, under the assumption she will be making at least $5.12 per hour in tips. As long as the net is $7.25 per hour, the Virginia state minimum, the Restaurant doesn’t need to pay her the full state minimum wage. Of course, when she takes off, assuming she’s paid, she’ll be paid the minimum wage of $7.25, but now the at best understaffed, and at worst closed restaurant has to pay her $5.12 more per hour to cover the lack of tips.

Keep in mind most restaurants fail. Thus, a two week slowdown or closure could leave a struggling establishment to deeply in the red to recover and if the restaurant fails, that single mother is out of work.

I’ll admit, this isn’t something I’d expect to be a rampant problem in the specific context I’ve just laid out, but consider it one of the many knock-on effects of a fortnight of closures could have on the U.S. Economy. After 9/11, all U.S. commercial air travel was ceased for the rest of the week, only recommencing on Friday, 14 September. Likewise, the New York Stock Exchange remained closed until 10:00, Monday, 20 September. The effects of just those closures on our economy were noticeable though nothing to cause an economic crash, though it did cause as much as $31.6 billion in losses to the insurance industry.

It’s hard to say exactly what the consequences of a fortnight of bringing the U.S. Economy to a grinding standstill, but there will be consequences. And consequences in a quadrennial election year. No-one knows for sure. But one thing we can almost certainly be sure of: it will hurt women the most.