A BRIEF HISTORY OF EVERYONE WHO EVER LIVED
The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes
By Adam Rutherford
416 pp. The Experiment. $25.95.
A recent and, even by its own lofty standards, especially hilarious and cringingly tasteless episode of “South Park” features the passionate and petulant schlimazel, middle-aged dad Randy Marsh, watching TV, when a commercial for a fictional consumer genetics company comes on the screen. “Wouldn’t you like to know the story of you?” the unctuous announcer asks. “What makes you you?” We then see a parade of white people doing entitled white people things — biking, painting, jogging — as they give testimonials about their DNA test results. All are thrilled to find out that their genomes have revealed them to be not just plain vanilla boring Caucasians, but rather to have some fraction of exotic — and more important, persecuted — ancestry. “I’m 21-percent victim!” exclaims one satisfied customer.
A reference to “South Park” would be right at home in Adam Rutherford’s impressive history of humanity as told by its DNA, “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived” (published in Britain last year and now updated for this American edition). Without ever undermining his seriousness of purpose, Rutherford himself alludes to an earlier episode of “South Park,” along with the early ’80s TV show “Fame,” the comedian Eddie Izzard and a B-side by Tupac, among various other pop-culture touchstones. This is not a textbook (although it should be).
The other reason the “South Park” set piece fits right in with Rutherford’s message is that he is cleareyed about exactly what genetics can and cannot tell us about ourselves and why those limitations so often leave us wanting more. “Our desire for these stories fuels the companies that sell them,” he writes. Sometimes the genetic ancestry data live up to the hype (the unearthing of Richard III from beneath a London parking garage and subsequent sequencing of his DNA) and sometimes they don’t (the recent and wholly unconvincing DNA identification of Jack the Ripper).
As popular science writing, “A Brief History” is nothing less than a tour de force — a heady amalgam of science, history, a little bit of anthropology and plenty of nuanced, captivating storytelling. While Rutherford, a geneticist, science writer and broadcaster, makes both his ambition and cheekiness clear in the title, he somehow manages to deliver on its great promise. He takes us back to the beginnings of the most recent iteration of humanity in Africa circa 300,000 years ago and fills us in on all of the other ancient hominins who preceded — and in a couple of cases had sex with — Homo sapiens, but he does so in such an entertaining and engaging fashion that the book never feels pedantic.
Over the last 150 years genetics has developed in part at the hands of fallible and occasionally bigoted human beings. Here too, and especially on questions of race and racism, Rutherford does not avert his gaze. While Charles Darwin became a fervent abolitionist, his half cousin, the brilliant and arrogant Francis Galton, became something else. In addition to world-changing statistical concepts (correlation, regression toward the mean), Galton came up with the term “eugenics” and then practiced what he preached, hoping, for example, to keep those without superior ability or inheritance from procreating. He also coined the phrase “Nature versus nurture,” which, Rutherford reminds us, “has plagued geneticists ever since.”
The distinct possibility that we are currently repeating it notwithstanding, the sorry history of 20th-century eugenics is well-plowed ground. Thankfully Rutherford’s wise, funny and occasionally cranky narrative visits lots of other places. Beyond giving us pop-culture Easter eggs, he is able to render esoteric and unfortunately named aspects of the science of inheritance (hi there, linkage disequilibrium!) in ways that give the lay reader a sense of how genetics works without yet another ninth-grade exhumation of Gregor Mendel. So long pea plants and fruit flies, hello earwax, lactose intolerance and a bunch of geneticists in a bar creating a betting pool for how many genes would turn out to be present in the human genome (spoiler: fewer than any of them thought).
Ever the scientist, Rutherford never sacrifices data on the altar of a good story: “A Brief History” is full of qualifiers, complications and “we just don’t know” that will no doubt disappoint white supremacists and genetic determinists of all stripes. “Ancestry is messy and difficult,” he writes. “Genetics is messy and mathematical, but powerful if deployed in the right way. People are horny. Lives are complex. A secret history is truly hidden in the mosaics of our genomes, but caveat emptor.”
If genetics can ever offer us words to live by, I reckon these are probably the best it can do.