A soup-to-nuts look at how we can use the tools of genealogy, family stories, cultural history and genetics to gain insight into our own lives and the world in which we live.
Kenneally (The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, 2007), a freelance journalist whose essays have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times and New Scientist, successfully attempts a “synthesis between the ways we consider genes and health, genes and culture, genes and history, genes and race and genes and special traits.” Genealogical research has become a popular pastime, with records easily available online. The author uses her Australian family as a jumping-off point, beginning with her father's evident discomfort in discussing his own family history. She discovered that her ancestors—like many of the first white settlers of Australia—were convicts transported there from Britain. It was “a unique social and economic experiment,” she writes. While serving their sentences, many “became educated…and once released, they became teachers, surgeons and lawyers and rose to positions of power in the government.” The abundant resources and scarcity of labor created opportunities for their rehabilitation, and their progeny showed no predisposition to criminality. Kenneally illustrates how the intersection of genetic information with family histories and census data can engender surprising (and sometimes unsettling) results—e.g., the identification of a modern American descendant of Genghis Khan. The author reveals a curious twist in the saga of the Woodsons, a black family who proudly traced their descent to Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress, Sally Hemings. Through their efforts, the Hemings-Jefferson relationship was established, but genetic testing proved that their family, who were descendants of Hemings’ first son, had a different father.
A lively, informative mix of genealogy and genetics.