The stories in our genes

Pitching popular science writing with the right balance must be fiendishly tricky. Making the complex accessible to a general reader necessarily means simplifying matters. And of course oversimplifying carries its own dangers and can perpetuate misunderstandings that plague science reporting in tabloid media. Perhaps this is true nowhere more than in genetics where too often lazy reporting and the exaggerated claims of commercial interests meet.

Adam Rutherford’s entertaining and often very funny book gets it right time after time. He is always at pains to be clear and not to mislead by oversimplifying. Pedantic clarification could be tedious but Rutherford is too good a writer not to anticipate this and instead delivers the message with clarity – and often self-deprecating humour. Speaking about the claims that living descendants of the Queen of Sheba had been traced by a private ancestry company, Rutherford writes:

Can we say she definitely existed? Not really. If she did, can we say that everyone is descended from her? I wish I could give a more academic answer, but a frown and a shrug is the best I can manage.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is a book in two parts. The first part is a potted history of human DNA, from the time when Homo sapiens shared the planet with other human species; the second half of the book looks at what genetics can tell us (and what it can’t tell us) about ourselves and our species.

It’s ambitious material to cover for the general reader and touches on so many hot topics: race, determinism, genetics and violent crime and heritability. Rutherford’s discussion of each produces a measured view, derived from evidence but not leaping into speculation or letting the reader run away with the wrong idea.  As he writes, “A continuing theme of this book is the limits to what genes can tell about us.”

Rutherford writes with a light touch to inform and uses the book’s own typography as a metaphor to explain some aspects of the genetic code. The complex and still unravelling story of human migration out of Africa is detailed here with all its nagging complication. Rutherford selects some great set pieces to tell his story. I found myself thinking “I’m enjoying this bit” a lot: Neanderthal DNA, the genetics of the plague, Charlemange, King Richard the Third and Jack the Ripper, the genetics of earwax, inbreeding among the Spanish Hapsburgs. And don’t ever skip the footnotes. Not only is there relevant and interesting detail down there, but some of the best jokes are too.

Along the way he corrects a lot of assertions you might have seen or heard elsewhere about genetics, human evolution and inheritance. The section on heritability is a beautifully clear piece of science writing. Also welcome is the slightly corrective tone on epigenetics:

… a fascinating, essential part of biology, still in its infancy, worthy of serious, scrutiny-rich research. It is not magic or new, not heretical, and it won’t upend Darwin or gift you supernatural powers over your life and fate.

Although keen to be accurate and clear Rutherford wisely allows some of the personal to intrude. We read a little of his own experience of racism, his nuanced views on Francis Galton and eugenics and the moving account of the ‘hideous Nazi experiment’ known as the Hongerwinter.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is great popular science writing. Enlightening, engaging and entertaining.

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