A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (UK 2016, US 2017), by Adam Rutherford, is a nicely measured work of popular science that, unlike far too many popular science books/articles, doesn’t overhype its subject matter — advances in deciphering the human genome and how such advances can be applied. Always seeking to inform rather than sell, Rutherford makes for a trustworthy guide whose down-to-earth, realistic perspective doesn’t at all detract from the inherent wonder of science.
He divides the work into two large segments: “the rewriting of the past using genetics, from a time when there were at least four human species on Earth right up to the kings of Europe in the eighteenth century” and an exploration of “who we are today, and what the study of DNA in the 21st century says about families, health, psychology, race, and the fate of us.” Whether he is discussing how genetics/DNA have helped inform a host of issues, such as what the discovery of Lucy (Australopithecus afrensis) can tell us about human evolution, how King Richard III’s body was uncovered and identified, or why the concept of race is an illusion, he is always careful to also tell us what DNA cannot do for us. As he says at one point, “DNA is a clue, not a silver bullet. It takes skill and care to make that clue into something valuable.” Or, in fewer words: “Don’t believe the hype.” (He levies particular scorn at those companies who seek to monetize genomics, whether through promises of finding your “famous” ancestors or through books that declare they’ve found the real Jack the Ripper.)
Much of what Rutherford does is attempt to refute or clarify a lot of myths surrounding genetics and ancestry. Some of it will require patient reading/rereading and thinking on the audience’s part. Not because the science is difficult or because Rutherford employs a lot of jargon — it isn’t and he doesn’t — but because it seems to fly in the face of “common sense.” But we’re not all that great at statistics or large numbers, so our common sense is often, as he lays out clearly, wrong.
He casts a wide net in A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, ranging far afield, though always tethered to the focus on DNA/genetics. And so we get discussion of early hominids/evolution, the rise of red hair and white skin, how brown eyes might come about (not quite as simple at what you learned in 10th grade bio), the ugliness of eugenics, the pretend nature of race as a concept, and the role of genetics in disease and treatment (“the number of diseases that have been cured as a result of gene therapy? Zero”). Sometimes one may feel a little lost in the seemingly random meandering Rutherford does, but he always circles us back to his main ideas before we feel too far afield. If I had one complaint, it would probably be an occasional lack of focus or structure. But given the clarity of Rutherford’s voice throughout, the patience with which he takes us through concepts that our human minds want to fight against in knee-jerk fusion, his refusal to overhype the science, and his clear sense of enthusiasm and wonder, a complaint about structure is a minor nitpick.
If you’re interested in early human evolution, the first half of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived serves not only as a nice overview complement to other works much more focused on that singular topic, but also as a nice tonic against the dumbed-down way in which discoveries in that field are reported in newspapers and magazines. The second half of the book, meanwhile, is much more vibrantly involved with our everyday contemporary world. Beyond the science, beyond the promises of medical treatments and discoveries, one could do worse in this politically charged environment than read a book that explains in painstaking fashion why we are all much more alike than we are different, and why those surface difference we cling to — race, nationality, and the like — are mere chimeras.