Book Review: A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived
Adam Rutherford's new book, on the miracle of human genetics, is not merely informative, but wise.
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A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes (W&N) by Adam Rutherford
The odds against you existing are astonishing. Every person reading this – every person not reading this, for that matter – is the consequence of a chain of meetings and matings reaching back over aeons. We can probably afford to be a little forgiving of those who, contemplating such awesome improbabilities, perceive the qualities of miracle.
Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is his second book-length fathoming of the unfathomable, following 2013’s excellent Creation: The Origin of Life / The Future of Life. In both books, Rutherford is an engaging and accessible narrator, able to deploy his expertise as a torch with which to illuminate a complicated subject. He is also often very funny, alive to the absurd lengths to which humans are willing to go in order to disbelieve the facts.
Rutherford’s particular expertise is genetics, and his purpose in A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is twofold. First and foremost, to provide a layperson’s guide to the basics of, and recent advances in, his field. Secondly, to demonstrate that almost everything on the subject that one might read in the popular press is at best lazily misconstrued, and at worst wilful, meretricious hogwash. On the latter subject, there is surely a case that poor science reporting is a worse journalistic felony than poor political reporting, as science, unlike politics, is not a realm in which the facts can be altered by opinions. The magnitude of the problem is neatly illustrated in the paragraphs in which Rutherford recalls being taken to lunch by a TV producer working on a programme pondering whether humans will ever evolve to be capable of unassisted flight. Spoiler alert: they won’t.
Rutherford’s core message here – and he is well entitled to the weary, sighing “despite what you may have read” in the introduction – is that genetics, especially recent research into DNA, is not destiny. It will not tell you whether you, or your children, are more or less likely to turn out genius or dunce, gay or straight, conservative or communist, astronaut or trouser-press salesman, upright citizen or chainsaw murderer. It will, however, tell you a great deal about who you are, and how you got here.
This is, inevitably, a singularly ripping yarn. Rutherford superbly narrates not merely our species’ progress from our original African heartland, but also the discoveries and advances which have allowed us to map that journey retrospectively. He has a keen eye for the arresting factoid that underpins the broader concept: any reader with even a smattering of European ancestry will be able to henceforth assume the airs and graces of royal descent upon absorbing Rutherford’s explanation of how they are almost statistically certain to be literally descended from Charlemagne.
Most useful is Rutherford’s elegant demonstration that notions of differing genetic predisposition to qualities or defects among races are nonsense: Native Americans have no inbuilt tendency to alcoholism, a Jew is no more likely to suffer “the Jewish disease”, Tay-Sachs syndrome, than a French Canadian, black people are not innately superior athletes. It can only warm the humanistically inclined heart that the more we learn about our origins and our make-up, the clearer it becomes that any tilt in the playing field was built by us, and is therefore ours to dismantle.
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is not merely informative but wise. It may well be that the sheer mind-boggling unlikeliness of our genesis, both as a species and as individuals, is what has driven successive generations of humankind to construct elaborate mythologies insisting that we are the carefully wrought masterpiece of some omnipotent creator, rather than the beneficiaries of a cosmically meaningless fluke. Rutherford believes, correctly, that humility might be a more appropriate response to our good fortune. A laminated copy of one of his aphorisms should be issued to every child at birth. “We are all special,” he writes, “which also means that none of us is.”