Rating: 4 Stars ★★★★☆
This is a story about you.
It is the history of who you are and how you came to be. It is unique to you, as it is to each of the 100 billion modern humans who have ever drawn breath. But it is also our collective story, because in every one of our genomes we each carry the history of our species – births, deaths, disease, war, famine, migration and a lot of sex.
Since scientists first read the human genome in 2001 it has been subject to all sorts of claims, counterclaims and myths. In fact, as Adam Rutherford explains, our genomes should be read not as instruction manuals, but as epic poems. DNA determines far less than we have been led to believe about us as individuals, but vastly more about us as a species.
In this captivating journey through the expanding landscape of genetics, Adam Rutherford reveals what our genes now tell us about history, and what history tells us about our genes. From Neanderthals to murder, from redheads to race, dead kings to plague, evolution to epigenetics, this is a demystifying and illuminating new portrait of who we are and how we came to be.
This was a really fascinating book. It’s a very broad history of humanity as told by our genes. It doesn’t so much focus on what genes actually are, though there are some parts of the book that give a broad overview of genes, genomes and their functions.
It tells of how early humans interacted with Neanderthals, Denisovans and how evidence of that can still be found in our genes and what is currently happening with the Neanderthal genes in our own genome.
But what DNA analysis revealed more categorically than anything else was that we had sex with them, repeatedly, probably as soon as these two peoples met, and every time afterwards.
There’s also a chapter on how much we are influenced by our genes and about the popular conception of genes. Contrary to popular opinion, genes are much more complex. There’s not one gene that codes the tendency to be prone to heart attacks or Alzheimer’s. I particularly enjoyed that chapter as it shows how much more complex things are than they’re often shown.
When we started to read the genome, what we wanted to find there were narratives that tidied up the mysteries of history and culture and individual identity; that told us exactly who we were, and why.
Our wishes were not satisfied. The human genome turned out to be far more interesting and complicated than anyone anticipated, including all the geneticists who remain ever more gainfully employed a decade on from the so-called completion of the Human Genome Project.
The book also tackles race and how it exists in our genome (it doesn’t), how we’re still evolving and what out technological advancement means for humanity’s evolution. There’s also a part about incest. One particular fact stuck with me and that was that of Charles II of Habsburg’s inbredness:
Charles, through generation after generation of uncle-niece pairings or first cousin pairings, was more cumulatively inbred than the child of a brother and sister.
The book has many such fascinating details and it’s written in a very clear style that’s easy to follow and understand. Though sometimes the author demonstrates genetic concepts in sentences. It makes sense, when he explains it, as genes are sort of like sentences. It’s just irritating when you don’t know that the author is about to bring an example and there’s just a nonsense sentence in the middle of the book that doesn’t get explained until later.
A fascinating book full of interesting details.