An enthusiastic history of mankind in which DNA plays a far greater role than the traditional “bones and stones” approach, followed by a hopeful if cautionary account of what the recent revolution in genomics foretells.
According to British geneticist and science writer Rutherford (Creation: How Science Is Reinventing Life Itself, 2013), “we have literally thousands of ancient, hardened bones, found all around the world; many in the nursery of the human story in eastern Africa, many in Europe, and the more we look the more we find.” They reveal clues about how our ancestors looked, hints about their behavior, and vague, contradictory hypotheses about their relation to our species. Deciphering DNA from these relics turns up more specific information about “how our evolution has proceeded.” Neanderthals were close relatives. They separated from a common ancestor around 500,000 years ago and met and interbred with us throughout Eurasia, dying out 30,000 years ago and leaving a small percentage of their DNA in ours. Amazingly, DNA from a single finger bone uncovered another subspecies, the Denisovans, which wandered Asia at the same time, leaving a sprinkling of DNA in Pacific Islanders and Australian Aborigines. Turning to the present, Rutherford recounts this century’s spectacular discoveries in genomics, pausing regularly to grind axes. For readers who wonder if racism has any basis in genetics, he explains at length that it hasn’t. He examines companies that offer to analyze an individual’s DNA and reveals why many of their claims are nonsense. Casting doubt on the steady stream of media announcements that scientists have discovered the gene for…addiction, homosexuality, height, anxiety, obesity, etc…the author emphasizes that dramatic advances in human well-being through genomics are guaranteed, if not quite yet. “Life is the accumulation and refinement of information embedded in DNA,” writes Rutherford. “We are the data.”
Often quirky but thoughtful—solid popular science.