Books by Robin McKie

Released: July 1, 1997

As surely as night follows day, one could expect a retort to the multiregional evolution of Homo sapiens as expounded by Milford Wolpoff et al. (in Race and Human Evolution, 1996). In the latter thesis the various races of humankind had migrated from Africa by two million years ago, evolved from Homo erectus, absorbed Neanderthal genes, and enjoyed enough matings at continental borders to commingle genes so that a single species of Homo sapiens emerged. Not so, say Stringer (director of the Human Origins Group, Natural History Museum, London) and McKie (science editor the Observer of London). Our ancestors left Africa barely 100,000 years ago, the offspring of a few ``Eves,'' to make their way in the rest of the world, outwitting or replacing whoever else was around—such as the Neanderthals. Who's right? Both sides claim fossil evidence, but Stringer adds a weight of DNA evidence that points to the very close match of mitochondrial DNA among non-African races, suggesting a recent separation, compared with more variation in African groups (mitochondrial DNA is inherited from the mother, hence the out-of-Africa thesis is often called the Eve theory). At this stage, the Stringer thesis has more going for it—in multiple lines of evidence as well as in plausibility (it seems more likely that our species got rid of Neanderthals rather than embraced them). But to keep the pot boiling, the authors also trot out theory after theory on the origins of language, art, religion, sexual behavior, etc., including what could be called the Lysistrata approach: Someone has proposed that at some pivotal time women smeared themselves with blood or else timed their periods so as to make themselves collectively unavailable for sex, forcing men to sublimate the urge by getting food for supper—going hunting, that is. In sum, the authors provide a good answer to multiregionalism but kindle even more fires to spark future debates on who, what, and why we are. (55 illustrations) Read full book review >
Released: Jan. 1, 1995

A lively and wide-ranging book about the accomplishments and aspirations of genetics and those who study it. Geneticist Bodmer, former president of the Human Genome Organization, teams up with British science writer McKie to produce a text that delivers considerably more than its subtitle suggests. Their history of genetics is rich in human interest: Intriguing subjects include the Kerr family of Scotland, famous for its left-handed swordsmen; the prevalence of hemophilia among the descendants of Queen Victoria; and the discovery of the genetic basis for Huntington's chorea, the disease that killed Woody Guthrie. The authors also provide portraits of Mendel, Crick and Watson, and many other less familiar scientists who have contributed to our knowledge of genetics. They detail the progress of genetic engineering in producing new medicines and the results to date of research into the heritability of schizophrenia and other illnesses. They also explore the application of genetic research to forensic science, such as the controversial ``DNA fingerprinting'' of criminal suspects, and to the tracing of prehistoric population movements by examining genetic evidence in the modern world. The book's only disappointing section, ironically, is Bodmer's account of his experiences with the Human Genome Organization, a nongovernmental group of scientists who aim to promote international collaboration in human genome research; Bodner dodges carefully around much of the political and scientific controversy that such research, including the US Human Genome Project, has inspired. The final chapter urges ``DNA literacy'' as the foundation for informed debate on the moral and ethical questions raised by many contemporary applications of genetics. Possibly the best popular treatment to date of the most glamorous and least understood of the biological sciences. Read full book review >