The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes

Now there’s an ambitious title: Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived. It’s a substantial book, but I would have thought it would have had to be a bit longer to cover everyone, and really, a biography of every individual who ever lived would probably get a bit repetitious.

Fortunately, this isn’t a collection of actuarial tables and obituaries. It’s something much more useful: a description of how we know what we know about humanity, from the perspective of genetics, with a solid awareness of the limitations and capabilities of such an approach. That’s helpful — one of our big problems right now is the abuse of genetics by the ignorant to advocate for an impossibly deterministic and racist view of human history. This book counteracts that by describing the methodology accurately, and you’ll learn a lot by reading it. But don’t panic, it’s not a textbook — it does tell the stories and is a good read.

If you doubt me, a revised chapter has been made freely available, A New History of the First Peoples in the Americas, just for us provincial Americans (the full book has a far more global perspective). This one focuses on some of the historical and scientific controversies around efforts to pigeonhole American Indians into one ill-fitting racial category or another.

The idea that tribal status is encoded in DNA is both simplistic and wrong. Many tribespeople have non-native parents and still retain a sense of being bound to the tribe and the land they hold sacred. In Massachusetts, members of the Seaconke Wampanoag tribe identified European and African heritage in their DNA, due to hundreds of years of interbreeding with New World settlers. Attempting to conflate tribal status with DNA denies the cultural affinity that people have with their tribes. It suggests a kind of purity that genetics cannot support, a type of essentialism that resembles scientific racism.

The specious belief that DNA can bestow tribal identity, as sold by companies such as Accu-Metrics, can only foment further animosity—and suspicion—toward scientists. If a tribal identity could be shown by DNA (which it can’t), then perhaps reparation rights afforded to tribes in recent years might be invalid in the territories to which they were moved during the 19th century. Many tribes are effective sovereign nations and therefore not necessarily bound by the laws of the state in which they live.

When coupled with cases such as that of the Havasupai, and centuries of racism, the relationship between Native Americans and geneticists is not healthy. After the legal battles over the remains of Kennewick Man were settled, and it was accepted that he was not of European descent, the tribes were invited to join in the subsequent studies. Out of five, only the Colville Tribes did. Their representative, James Boyd, told The New York Times in 2015, “We were hesitant. Science hasn’t been good to us.”

Data is supreme in genetics, and data is what we crave. But we are the data, and people are not there for the benefit of others, regardless of how noble one’s scientific aims are. To deepen our understanding of how we came to be and who we are, scientists must do better, and invite people whose genes provide answers to not only volunteer their data, but to participate, to own their individual stories, and to be part of that journey of discovery.

A book about human genetics with a humanist perspective? That debunks 19th century dogma about race and intelligence? Yeah, it’s good. I’ve been trying to think of ways I could fit it into my already packed-full genetics course, or whether I could offer a non-majors course that incorporated it as a text.

But at least I can tell you all that you need to read it.

There will be a test. Not that I’ll be giving it, but rather that our entire culture seems to be testing you on this subject right now. You should read the book so you can answer it correctly.


  1. rietpluim says

    There really are people who think tribalism is in the DNA?
    I should not be surprised, but still I am.

  2. vole says

    Isn’t this the man who wrote the definitive review of A N Wilson’s bad book about Darwin? Sounds as though his own book is far more worth reading.

  3. jazzlet says

    He presents a science magazine programme on BBC Radio 4 and his enthusiasm, tempered by rigor, makes it well worth a listen. I could hear his voice clearly when eading the excerpt.

  4. blf says

    Isn’t this the man who wrote the definitive review of A N Wilson’s bad book about Darwin?

    Yes it is.

    As an aside, A.N. Wilson’s shite-feast now has 67 reviews on Amazon, 53 of which are “critical” (50 are the lowest possible rating, 1-star). Dr Adam Rutherford’s review has been cited as “useful” over 1400 times.

  5. microraptor says

    rietpluim @1:

    There really are people who think tribalism is in the DNA?

    There are “test your DNA” companies that advertise it, with stupid commercials about things like how someone found out that even though he grew up thinking he was German he had his DNA tested and it told him he was Scottish so now he changed all his hobbies from stereotypical German activities to stereotypical Scottish ones.