Breezy survey of forensic DNA techniques at work in history and archaeology.
After an overview of the role DNA plays in heredity, PhD candidate Meyer (Science Communication/Australian National Univ.) moves to consider seven key questions, each getting its own chapter. The first is “Were the Neanderthals our ancestors?” Traditional anthropology can’t tell us, but DNA from a few Neanderthal fossils differs enough from modern DNA to preclude any Neanderthal contribution to the Homo sapiens gene pool, the author concludes. Could ancient dinosaur DNA be cloned to create the reptilian monsters of Jurassic Park? Alas, Meyer informs us, the upper limit for survival of DNA appears to be about 100,000 years, too short for the occasional finds of soft tissue to yield any useful DNA from the age of dinosaurs more than 65 million years ago. More recently extinct creatures, such as frozen Siberian mammoths or the Tasmanian tiger, offer a better opportunity, though none of the attempts has yet panned out. This chapter also addresses ethical concerns and safety issue involved in cloning a creature alien to the modern world. DNA research helped unravel many mysteries surrounding the moa, an extinct ostrich-like bird that roamed the author’s native New Zealand within historic times. Genetic analysis clarified the moa’s relation to other flightless birds and showed that females were often twice the size of males. “Plague Proportions” probes such historical epidemics as the medieval Black Death, the tuberculosis that devastated American Indians after Columbus and the 1918 flu. Meyer ends with two biographical puzzles, one concerning Anastasia, youngest daughter of the last Czar of Russia, the other centered on Dauphin Louis Charles, who reportedly died in prison during the French Revolution. She puts each case into historical context, and gives enough scientific detail to make the issues clear.
Lively exposition of an interesting topic: Meyer is a science writer to watch.