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A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes

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'A brilliant, authoritative, surprising, captivating introduction to human genetics. You'll be spellbound' Brian CoxThis is a story about you. It is the history of who you are and how you came to be. It is unique to you, as it is to each of the 100 billion modern humans who have ever drawn breath. But it is also our collective story, because in every one of our genomes we each carry the history of our species - births, deaths, disease, war, famine, migration and a lot of sex. In this captivating journey through the expanding landscape of genetics, Adam Rutherford reveals what our genes now tell us about human history, and what history can now tell us about our genes. From Neanderthals to murder, from redheads to race, dead kings to plague, evolution to epigenetics, this is a demystifying and illuminating new portrait of who we are and how we came to be.***'A thoroughly entertaining history of Homo sapiens and its DNA in a manner that displays popular science writing at its best' Observer 'Magisterial, informative and delightful' Peter Frankopan'An extraordinary adventure...From the Neanderthals to the Vikings, from the Queen of Sheba to Richard III, Rutherford goes in search of our ancestors, tracing the genetic clues deep into the past' Alice Roberts

419 pages, Paperback

First published September 8, 2016

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About the author

Adam Rutherford

29 books568 followers
Adam David Rutherford is a British geneticist, author, and broadcaster. He was an audio-visual content editor for the journal Nature for a decade, is a frequent contributor to the newspaper The Guardian, hosts the BBC Radio 4 programme Inside Science, has produced several science documentaries and has published books related to genetics and the origin of life.

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Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,194 reviews9,461 followers
October 29, 2016
It’s hard to find a modern book on race which will tell you what is the current scientific thinking, given the remarkable progress of genetics and the unravelling of the human genome and all that. There are a thousand books on racism, but hardly any on race. Isn’t that curious? I believe that may be because scientists realise it’s a hornet’s nest and they prefer not to stick their heads in.

I recently heard of Nicholas Wade’s A Troubling Inheritance (2014) but before I got to that one I found this one, which turns out to be pretty much what I was looking for – a third of it anyway, the other two thirds is above my head.

But first, what can genetics do for you?


Adam Rutherford does a search on Google : “Scientists discover the gene for”. It gets him thousands of headlines from every type of publication “from the trashy to the august”.

Scientists discover the gene for cocaine addiction (Guardian 11 November 2008)

Scientists discover height gene (BBC Outline, 3 September 2007)

Scientists have discovered an “anxiety gene” (Daily Mail, 19 July 2002)

Scientists find “gay gene” that can help predict your sexuality (Daily Mirror, 9 October 2015)

Scientists find gene for compulsive reviewing of books on Goodreads (Okay, I made that one up)

Adam Rutherford holds his head in his hands and moans slightly. Then he writes this book, the message of which is

It’s much more complicated than that.

Mainly this book is a deflating mythbusting exercise – you can’t check anyone’s DNA and find out what percentage of her is from the Sudan and what percentage is Viking. It’s a bit disappointing really – I wanted to ask Dr Rutherford, well, what can you tell me? Never mind about what you can’t. He likes to say what you can’t do.


One of the things he thinks genetics can do and has done is show that scientifically speaking, there’s no such thing as race. This was the best part of the book. I like it when people draw a line in the sand. Actually, in this case, he’s obliterating the many previous lines which have been drawn in the sand.

there are no essential genetic elements for any particular group of people who might be identified as a “race”. As far as genetics is concerned, race does not exist…. This does not align with the popular concept of race.

He hastily adds

That, of course, does not mean that racism doesn’t exist.

Okay, he’s willing to say that there may be other interpretations:

The question of what race means from a scientific point of view is complex, controversial and still a source of great ire and debate.

But that doesn’t last long :

Biology fundamentally deceives our eyes. Genetically, two black people are more likely to be more different to each other than a black person and a white person…. The genes that confer skin pigmentation are few, but mask a level of deeper genetic variation within Africa than without.


So then we get to the ticklish question – what about when it appears to be clear that a particular “race” appears to be BETTER at some activity than other “races”? Is it racist to say that, for instance, Jewish Americans have been consistently brilliant at writing popular music for about a hundred years? (This is something which particularly fascinates me.) All the way from Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart to Goffin and King and Greenwich and Barry and on to Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen – the list is endless. Is it in their genes? Dr Rutherford picks another obvious example, black athletes.

It turns out : there is no genetic component. He says robustly:

The idea that black people are better at sport because of genetics, and possibly because of breeding during the wicked centuries of slavery, is built upon tissue foundations, and its cultural ubiquity yet another example of the chasm between what we think and what science says is true.

Well, it’s a curious thing. Adam Rutherford along with other geneticists say very clearly that race does not exist, but of course as we know every day the world ignores this and proceeds on the assumption that everyone is a member of a discrete race, or is to be classified as mixed race. So it all becomes rather like atheists arguing that there’s no God when almost everyone in the world operates on the assumption that there is.

I think we must conclude that the human race, speaking generally, does not much care what scientists say is real or not real. There’s just no telling them. They just stick their fingers in their ears and say to people like Adam Rutherford “la la la la, we’re not listening”.
Profile Image for Lois Bujold.
Author 184 books37.7k followers
July 18, 2018
That should be 3 1/2, really.

Well, hm. That was very... British.

In the sense that its assumed core audience was Brit, and a lot of the references and examples aimed at them. I watch enough PBS and read enough Britlit not to be wholly at sea, but I noticed in a way that might be invisible to the intended audience. The writer almost always corrects the casual assumption that his reader will be male, but he misses a few subtle spots. (Dear lord English desperately needs a generally accepted, unclumsy gender-neutral pronoun besides the plural "they", which only works sometimes.)

It was about 50% the book I was hoping for, an account of the latest findings in deep human history and evolution from DNA evidence. Many of the examples were things I already knew about, because PBS. There was a lot of patiently attempting to explain how science really works, from a scientist/science journalist who is clearly deeply pained by how headlines and pop science news and the general public consistently get it wrong; remedial science education, on the fly. The other 50% was more about the current intersections of genetics and social and legal issues. Written in a chatty modern style. Lots of personal anecdotes, and some opinions, partly to try to lighten the density of the material perhaps, partly to illustrate it.

I have another book on order from the library from 2018 that would appear to cover some of the same ground, with updates perhaps -- and Rutherford is right that updates in this fast-moving field are happening every week. We'll see if the paired readings complement each other.

Ta, L.

* -- Oh. And do read the footnotes. As is common, much of the fun stuff is concealed therein.
Profile Image for Michael Perkins.
Author 6 books356 followers
May 5, 2020
The unwelcome revival of ‘race science’.....



“What genes are and what they tell us about people are very closely related, but not, in almost all cases, definitive. This is a seam that will run throughout this book, confronting and dispelling the culturally ubiquitous idea that genes are fate, and a certain type of any one gene will determine exactly what an individual is like. That this is a fallacy is universally known among geneticists, yet it is still an idea that carries a lot of cultural significance, fueled frequently by the media and an ultra-simplistic understanding of the absurd complexities of human biology......

......When we look to the past and to our presumed genetic ancestry to understand and explain our own behaviors today, it is not much better than astrology. The genes of your forebears have very little influence over you. Unless you carry a particular disease that has passed down the family tree, the unending shuffling of genes, the dilution through generations, and the highly variably and immensely complex influence that genes have over your actual behavior mean that your ancestors have little sway over you at all."


"There are no essential genetic elements for any particular group of people who might be identified as a “race.” As far as genetics is concerned, race does not exist."


"With our current knowledge of the genomics of of Native Americans, there is no possibility of DNA being anywhere near a useful tool in ascribing tribal status to people. Furthermore, given our understanding of ancestry and family trees I have profound doubts that DNA could ever be used to determine tribal membership.....

Over centuries, people are too mobile to have remained genetically isolated for any significant length of time. Tribes are known to have mixed before and after colonialism, which should be enough to indicate that that some notion of tribal purity is at best imagined. Genealogy companies will sell you kits that claim to grant you membership to historical peoples, albeit ill-defined, is highly romanticized. It's a kind of of genetic astrology.

That hasn’t stopped the emergence of some companies in the United States that sell kits that claim to use DNA to ascribe tribal membership. The list is comprehensive, from Abenaki to Zuni. Accu-Metrics is not the only company: DNA Consultants sells a Cherokee test for $99. There is no biological test that alone can demonstrate tribal membership. These outfits state: “All tests can be done for legal purposes” and “The results of this scientific test can be used to receive a status card or tribal enrollment.”

The author goes on to express full sympathy to Native Americans and their traditions and religion. And their rights. He just wants to debunk profiteers who claim to provide what is scientifically impossible at this time.

Meanwhile, the author debunks several "genetic services" such as Accu-Metrics and DNA Consultants above, as well as BritainsDNA. The latter claims to have found some of the descendants of the Queen of Sheba, a mythical figure. 23andMe comes off as more solid, but has its limits. But too often the "results" from many of these other services sound like astrology: divination drawn from banality in which we tend to cling to the things that appeal, and happily ignore the rest. But the media likes to pick up on the more sensational claims.

Too funny: Charlemagne could be out of LOTR, with maybe some Harry Potter thrown in....

"A fecund ruler, Charlemagne sired at least eighteen children by motley wives and concubines, including nine by his second wife, Hildegard of Vinzgau. These kin included Charles the Younger, Pippin the Hunchback, Drogo of Metz, Hruodrud, Ruodhaid, Adalheid, Hludowic, and not forgetting Hugh"

"Christopher Lee— the great actor who among his roles counts Dracula; Tolkien’s Saruman the White; the Man with the Golden Gun himself, Scaramanga; the fallen Jedi Count Dooku; and The Wicker Man’s Lord Summerisle— claimed direct ancestry to King Charlemagne via the ancient house of his mother, Countess Estelle Marie (née Carandini di Sarzano)....but I can say with absolute confidence that if you’re vaguely of European extraction you are also descended from Charlemagne."

I have a very detailed genealogy on my father's side, going back to the arrival to America of our ancestor in 1636. But we had nothing like that on my mother's side. Her maiden name was Martel and she liked to say were were related to Charlemagne. The father of Charlemagne, was Charles Martel, known as "The Hammer" having led the Frankish troops in the Battle of Tours in turning back the invading Muslim forces from Gaul. But it seems that my mother may have been right.

The population of Europe a the time of Charlemagne was small and he was very "fecund" as noted. The author explains....

"Each generation back the number of ancestors you have doubles. But this ancestral expansion is not borne back ceaselessly into the past. What this means is that pedigrees begin to fold in on themselves a few generations back and become weblike. You can be, and in fact are, descended from the same individual many times over. Your great-great-great-great-great-grandmother might hold that position in your family tree twice, or many times, as her lines of descent branch out from her, but collapse onto you. The further back through time we go, the more these lines will coalesce on fewer individuals. Basically, everyone alive in the ninth century who left descendants is the ancestor of every living European today, including Charlemagne, Drogo, Pippin and Hugh."

If this seems unlikely or confusing, of course you will have to read the book to get more details. The author goes on to explain how this was demonstrated mathematically even before the incorporation of high-powered DNA.

Ultimately, this kind of analysis extends beyond Europe and farther back in time, as the book explains.

"When mathematician Joseph Chang factored in new, highly conservative variables, such as reducing the number of migrants across the Bering Straits to one person every ten generations, the age of the most recent common ancestor of everyone alive went up to 3,600 years ago.

This number may not feel right, and when I talk about it in lectures, it often results in a frown of disbelief. We’re not very good at imagining generational time. We see families as discrete units in our lifetimes, which they are. But they’re fluid and continuous over longer periods beyond our view, and our family trees sprawl in all directions. The concluding paragraph of Chang’s otherwise tricky mathematical and highly technical study is neither of those things. It’s beautiful writing, extremely unusual in an academic paper, and it deserves to be shared in full:

Our findings suggest a remarkable proposition: no matter the languages we speak or the color of our skin, we share ancestors who planted rice on the banks of the Yangtze, who first domesticated horses on the steppes of the Ukraine, who hunted giant sloths in the forests of North and South America, and who laboured to build the Great Pyramid of Khufu."


Darwin's half-cousin, Francis Galton, was the founder of the eugenics movement. He created a taxonomy of physical and personality attributes to determine if a person, and people, were of superior stock or "feeble." This concept was quite popular across the political spectrum. George Bernard Shaw approved, as did Winston Churchill, as did Teddy Roosevelt. But a program was not seriously implemented in Britain, but it was in the U.S., Sweden and, of course Germany.

The head of the eugenics movement in America was President of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, who was a founding member of the American Breeders Association and the Eugenics Record Office.

In the U.S......

"the forced, involuntary, and often secret sterilization of undesirables was embraced enthusiastically. From 1907, when Indiana passed the first mandate, until 1963, forced sterilization was legally administered in thirty-one states, with California the most vigorous adopter. The most recent cases of forced sterilization in that famously liberal state occurred in 2010. In the twentieth century, more than 60,000 men and women, though mostly women, were sterilized for a variety of undesirable traits— men frequently to curtail the propagation of criminal behaviors. Native American women were forcibly sterilized in their thousands, and as late as the 1970s, black women with multiple children were being sterilized under the threat of withheld welfare, or in some cases without their knowledge."

In 1937, the American Eugenics Society issued statements of praise for the work that the Nazis were doing to cleanse the gene pool. For them, the scale on which the Nazis were carrying out their mass sterilization was what they had wanted for America.

Of course, the fullest horrors would come with the Nazi Holocaust, which not only included Jews in their millions, but also homosexual men, Roma, Poles, and people with mental illness.


The author discusses the futile search for a "criminal gene," supposedly a defective MAOA gene. Though sensationalized in the media, it has never been established scientifically. Although, for example, the "finding" has been conveniently ascribed to the Maori people by white scientists in New Zealand.

There was also an attempt, based on a preconceived notion, to discover such a gene in Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter. The killing of 20 children, and 26 people overall, was quite horrid, but what was to blame? Video games? that he was autistic? Nope. It was the answer so many wanted to resist and what the author gives....

"We look to statistics for reassurance in these types of case. Here is one: 100 percent of mass shootings have been enabled by access to guns. I can guarantee that even if there were a genotype shared by the mass shooters, which there will not be, none of the killings would have happened if they didn’t have guns."

"No one will ever find a gene for “evil,” or for beauty, or for musical genius, or for scientific genius, because they don’t exist. DNA is not destiny."


Per Europe....


More on the Eugenics movement....




In keeping with the science in this book. Elizabeth Warren's DNA test proves nothing....

"The inherent imprecision of the six-page DNA analysis could provide fodder for Warren’s critics. If her great-great-great-grandmother was Native American, that puts her at 1/32nd American Indian. But the report includes the possibility that she’s just 1/1024th Native American if the ancestor is 10 generations back."

Not satisfied with this, in a video that Warren released along with the analysis, she described how her mother had discussed their Native American ancestry. Family lore held that there were Cherokee and Delaware indigenous ancestors.

The Cherokee Nation condemned Warren’s analysis in a statement Monday.

“Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong”

As explained above, there is no DNA test to demonstrate direct tribal heritage, Cherokee or otherwise.


Interesting new development,. A coalition of Native American leaders have asked Elizabeth Warren to reject her false claims of being Native American. Contrary to rumor, she did not invoke it to get her position at Harvard, but when she applied to the Texas State Bar she listed her identity as "Native American" She's an example of someone who has assumed a false identity which, in the case of many others who have, has resulted in the appropriation of funds that were intended for Native Americans, but went to others.



The author's follow up book....

Profile Image for Trevor.
1,293 reviews21.7k followers
February 14, 2021
This is a nice wee book. It is also a reasonably quick read and is even readable: two nice things for a book on such a complex topic to be if it possibly can manage it. I’ve reviewed his other book on how to argue with a racist – so will keep to things here that aren’t covered there – although, there really is lots of overlap.

One of the things that we mere mortals – that is, people who do not have a degree in genetics – can tend to assume is that our genes are basically like a series of switches that get turned on or off when we are born (or even before that) and, well, that’s that. You know, at birth my gene for composing symphonies was flicked to the off position, and so that explains the remarkable shortage of symphonies I’ve subsequently composed. Same goes for eye colour – in my case, flicked to brown. Same goes, I presume, for lacrosse playing ability – well, I assume. Since I’ve never tried to play lacrosse, perhaps this is a kind of recessive gene that’s been ‘on’ the whole time waiting patiently for me to get around to stumbling across that net thing and ball.

Just as an aside, when I was a child, I’m nearly certain I was told that lacrosse was an Indian game – but the person saying this must have meant an American Indian (aka, Native American) game – in double checking how to spell lacrosse I’ve learnt something new.

Anyway – genes don’t quite work like that – as switches, that is. A few years ago, I went to Western Australia with a friend and we went into a contemporary art gallery in Perth. There was a remarkable artwork there called ‘Probably Chelsea’ by Heather Dewey Hagborg. The point of the artwork was to use Chelsea Manning’s DNA to create a series of possible people all as estimates derived from her DNA. You see, if DNA worked the way we mostly think it does, then if we were to find some DNA left at a crime scene we should be able to tell lots and lots of things about the person that DNA belonged to. We should be able to create a kind of photo-fit of features from that sample. You know, we might not be able to tell how intelligent they are (despite how much people go on about the genetic basis of intelligence) but stuff like hair colour, eye colour, skin colour, height, sexual preference, likelihood of them being diabetic, stuff like that should all be relatively easy to mark off the list. So, how come it isn’t? When you watch the news and they find DNA of the bad-guy, how come they don’t say, “He is six-foot-two, with eyes of blue, and a mole on is left elbow.”

The reason is that virtually all phenotypical expressions of genes are ‘statistical’ rather than ‘hard and fast’. You might have ‘the gene’ for blue eyes, but still have brown eyes.

The artwork is a series of 30 hanging face masks, all of which are artists impressions, all of which are possible Chelsea Mannings as decided from her DNA. We like our science to be nice and reductionist, for it to provide simple answers – a series of yeses and noes – but science (even genetics) doesn’t work anything quite like that.

That’s the key thing you are likely to learn from this book. That genes aren’t really anything like switches, that the dichotomy between nature and nurture is a false one, given the two sides of that dichotomy are in a dance more than standing in a stark opposition, and that very few genes in our ‘genetic map’ work alone, or in isolation, or as a switch.

The world, it turns out, is richer and more interesting than we would generally like it to be. It’s all terribly annoying, but it does seem to be the way it works.
Profile Image for Emma.
974 reviews975 followers
September 15, 2016
The stories of our genes have been all over publishing right now and this is one of the best examples of how scientists can make complex subjects interesting, relevant, and fun. Adam Rutherford reads his own work, something I particularly love as it enables the author to convey the passion and enthusiasm they hold for their subject in a way that no narrator can match. And he's funny with it too. It's one of those listening experiences where you end up feeling like you've learnt something but had a good laugh doing it. He debunks myths with dedication and humour (the section on the extinction of gingers is particularly amusing), explains the current status of research and knowledge, and offers the some idea about how much more there is to learn. It's truly fascinating.

For me, as a history enthusiast, I really enjoyed the way science and history are coming together to offer insights that neither subject can do alone. For example, in genetically mapping the people of Britain, it was found that there was very little of the Roman invaders left in our genes, suggesting that while they may her left us many things within the material, cultural, and social spheres, they clearly weren't interacting with us more physically. That says a lot about the whole systems in place during a very long period. Happy to rule us, but not have sex with us clearly.

Not only that, I had no idea how many different types of humans there have been, what types of remains had been found, and the ways in which scientists are using these remains to map the movements of ancient peoples. That we can see the full genome of people who lived many thousands of years ago is staggering, the we continue to pass on some of that information within our genes is incredible. This book has turned me from someone largely uninterested in the specifics of prehistory to a bit of a fan. Like a lot of history, it's a thrilling form of detective work and the science of our genes has so much to say.

I very much recommend it, even if you are new to the subject, as I was. The experience reminds me of having that one favourite teacher at school- you know the one who converted you on to a specific subject and nurtured your interest. For me, it was history, not science. But Rutherford has shown me how it can be a mix of both.
Profile Image for Radiantflux.
427 reviews409 followers
September 8, 2019
76th book for 2018.

I hate it when books don't deliver on their titles. I was expecting a brief history of everyone who lived. Spoiler: Didn't happen. Various chapters are devoted to the authors own pet peeves like how genetics is misrepresented in the media.

A much better book, which at least lives up to it's title, is Robert David Reich's "Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the new science of the human past". Topics about genetics and behavior and the effects of environment on gene expression are covered in a far more nuanced fashion in "Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst" by Robert Sapolsky.

While it was only a small part of the book: I found his discussion of color vision (as an ex-vision scientist) annoying. He completely misrepresents how color vision works: We don't have "three-color vision" (whatever that means - we do see FOUR pure colors); this is not because we have 3-cones classes (three colors) - for instance, if we had 4-cone classes we wouldn't see four colors). His discussion of tetrachromacy (which occurs in about 50% of women) is an interesting story, which he fails to explain in any real way, which is a shame as the genetics is interesting. His complete failure to explain color vision makes me wonder what other errors are in the book.

Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
804 reviews2,536 followers
July 12, 2020
This is an entertaining book about what genetics tells us about ourselves, and what it does not tell. For example, genetics tells us that a certain small percentage of our genes comes from Neanderthals. It cannot tell us if you descended from a particular tribe of Native Americans. DNA analyses tell us about tendencies, but does not tell you that you are violent, or prone to Alzheimer's disease, or what "race" you belong to. In fact, genetics cannot distinguish among races--it is a social classification, not a biological one.

I got a kick out of reading about how so-and-so claims to be a direct descendant of Charlemagne. The claim is true; but just about every European is also a descendant.

The book is packed with interesting anecdotes. The most riveting story is about England's King Richard III. The exhuming of his grave and subsequent DNA analysis fully corroborated the legend of his life and death, and the his portrayal by Shakespeare. Since he died 600 years ago, he is probably the oldest corpse positively identified through DNA analysis.

I enjoy reading science books that are written by scientists who truly understand their field--as long as the book is well written. And this book is--the author is a geneticist, and the book is filled with the author's dry wit. It reminds me a lot of the books by Bill Bryson. I listened to the audiobook, which is narrated by the author. The author's narration is clear, and his British accent is charming.
Profile Image for Marc.
3,067 reviews1,087 followers
September 6, 2020
Genetic research has boomed in the last 30 years. A provisional highlight was the description of the human genome (an overview of the genetic code of our species) in 2003. But naturally science has not stood still since then. Nowadays, not a day goes by without spectacular discoveries or breakthroughs reported by geneticists in their research, for instance on diseases.

This book by Adam Rutherford, a publicist with a background in evolutionary genetics, gives a comprehensive state of affairs at the time of the publication of this book, in 2016, now already 4 years ago. Not an easy task, because genetics turns out to be a lot more complicated than you might think. Rutherford therefore proceeds in small steps, and regularly follows side paths in which he occasionally explores certain technical aspects. That makes this book a bit elobarate at times, but in the end you get a very informative picture.

A selection of some interesting tidbits. That mankind has barely 20,000 genes, much less than expected, and less than, for example, a banana or a grain of rice. That the Human Genome Project only gave a limited reading of human genetics and that there still are whole areas in the human genome of which we do not know exactly what function they have. That there are virtually no diseases that can be attributed to a single gene, on the contrary, that it seems that different pieces of genetic material are involved in all possible phenomena (negative and positive). That it certainly makes no sense to claim that phenomena such as criminal behaviour, intelligence, sexual orientation, etc. can be attributed to a particular gene. And also important, that the companies that offer a reading of your genetic "family tree" are in most cases charlatans, digging up generalities.

But Rutherford offers much more than those tidbits. He also addresses thorny issues such as whether the concept of race has a genetic basis, he explores the nature/nurture debate, and sketches how human evolution still is going on. And of course, he disproves the bullshit spread by creationists. But what is particularly striking is his highly reasoned and nuanced defence of the scientific approach, in small steps, with word and reply in full transparency, and with attention to the limitations of the scientific method.

Some minor drawbacks: occasionally Rutherford is very wordy and he likes to incorporate anecdotes in his account, improving the readability, but sometimes distracting from the essence. This book also is quite Britain-oriented, citing mostly British studies, and focussing on studies of British subjects. But all in all, I really enjoyed reading this.

For the genetic research on the earliest human species, see my review of this book in my History account on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Profile Image for Atila Iamarino.
411 reviews4,361 followers
July 21, 2018
Um ótimo review sobre a evolução humana, desta vez pelo lado molecular da coisa. Compila os últimos achados de sequenciamento de genomas humanos e de humanos extintos (Neandertais e Denisovanos), falando sobre como caiu o conceito de raça, o que descobrimos sobre cor da pele, nossa fala, nosso cérebro e mais um mundo de coisas. O último livro que li nessa linha foi a biografia do Svante Pääbo, mas o Pääbo fica muito em torno dos neandertais só (especialidade dele). Enquanto este trata de humanos antigos sequenciados, surgimento de várias culturas e bem mais. Com uma base forte de genética e bastante sarcasmo. Recomendo muito.
Profile Image for Katy .
774 reviews55 followers
January 5, 2018
It is really difficult for me to articulate my feelings after I had read this book. I found this book fascinating in the first half which focused on what genes can tell us about the origin of our species, especially the bits discussing the evidence found in the genome of ancient remains. The tone was very humorous and quite sarcastic and it was just a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the second half focusing on race and where the actual science is heading in relation to the study of the human genome, was a bit yawn inducing.

Adam Rutherford’s writing style felt quite jumbled at times and read like a stream of consciousness almost which felt odd. In my opinion, this book could have been just a tad more accessible and not bogged down with so much scantily explained jargon, the glossary also felt like an afterthought. I didn’t really feel there was a point to the book by the end. So in summary, this book starts off interesting and strong but gradually peters out by the end where I was on the verge of losing interest entirely. Still an interesting read though and I think it’s worth it.
Profile Image for Sense of History.
386 reviews430 followers
September 24, 2022
The title of this book is a bit misleading: in the first part Rutherford does indeed give a good overview of the evolutionary history of the human species ("a history of everyone who ever lived"), but thereafter he mainly gives a state of the art of genetic research in general, with everything what is involved. The first part was the main reason why I read this book, so in this review I will only go into that part.

Classic archeology has ruled the domain of earliest human history for over 150 years, since the discovery of Neanderthal bones in a cave near Düsseldorf, Germany. In the 1950s the field of action shifted to Eastern and Southern Africa, gradually drawing up a family tree of human and pre-human species, like for instance Australopithecus or Homo Erectus. This family tree had to be revised approximately every 10 years or so, following the discovery of new, older fossils or the application of new dating methods. This was sometimes accompanied by unscientific methodologies and fierce infight between archaeologists, but that is not the subject of this book.

From the 1990s onwards, genetics has put this pedigree model under intense pressure. An ever-better understanding of the DNA and especially the human genome (the entirety of the genetic code of man) made it possible to date human remains much more accurately and, above all, to establish almost unambiguous connections or distinctions between and within human species. For a while it seemed that now was offered a methodology that for once and for all could put an end to the endless disputes amongst archeologists and paleontologists.

But then it turned out that the picture was much more complicated than expected. For instance, take the study of Neandertal people, which we know disappeared about 30,000 years ago. Study of the genetic material of our Sapiens species has unequivocally shown that it also contains typical Neandertal material, on average for about 2.5%. In other words, Neandertal and Sapiens interbred (in fact in several interconnecting 'waves'), so that you can say that though Neandertal is a dead-end branch of the human species, nevertheless he lives on in us (especially Europeans and East-Asians)! The same phenomenon is established with those curious other representatives of the "homo genus": the Denisova and the Floriensis. Rutherford rightly concludes: "the ancient genomes awaiting discovery will show that the world was much more cosmopolitan in the millennia before we became the last representative of the homo genus". And: "It's now clearer than ever. that the old, simplistic view of how we became what we are is simply not correct. Gone are the days of neatly branched trees, of the bent monkey walking upright step by step”.

Nice, but what did surprise me is that this spectacular evolution in genetic research is also subject to its own limitations. For example, almost all genetic research is focussed on the analysis of 'mitrochondrial DNA', that's a part of the genetic code that is situated outside of the cell nucleus, and it is easier to 'read' than the very long DNA-strings within the nucleus. Now this 'mitrochondrial DNA' is only transmitted to a next generation by the mother (the father has his own unique 'parcel', the well-known Y-chromosome). Limiting research to this part has the advantage of enabling a much faster analysis and establishing clear lines of connections and distinctions. But nevertheless, can we really be sure that this is a reliable method that gives us the whole picture? Of course, I'm a layman in these affairs, but once again it seems science is taking the path of segmentation, risking reductionism.

Another limitation: apparantly it is not possible to extract DNA from species older than 100-50,000 years: the DNA in the fossil remains has almost always completely disintegrated, due to heat and moisture. The oldest complete genome of a sapiens is only 45,000 years old (at least it was the year this book was published, in 2016). In other words: for the time being, genetic research does not tell us everything about the earliest history of mankind, and especially about its predecessors, the australopithicus or the homo erectus of which we have found lots of fossils, not useful to genetic research. Only indirectly some data can be retrieved, by specifically looking at the quantity and diversity of mutations detectable within the 'modern' DNA, and establishing how many generations ago a certain mutation took root in a certain population or species.

So, up until now, most of the gains of genetic research are within the history of Homo Sapiens itself. For instance, genetics has been able to map the migration waves of the Sapiens in a much better and more reliable way than classic archeology. But once again the answers are not completely unambiguous: genetic research confirms that agriculture certainly came to Europe via migration flows (a first wave from about 9,700-7,000 BP, and a second much larger one after 5,000 BP), but that too was accompanied by a considerable mixing with the local hunter-gatherer population, making it difficult to answer the classic question whether hunter-gatherers were expelled and annihilated by farmers, or adopted farming methods and were integrated in the farming population.

Rutherford makes it clear that genetic research does provide us with a lot of new insights, but at the same time confronts us with a lot of new questions. Almost every door that is opened leads to new branching paths. In other words, genetic research does not provide all the answers, although Rutherford is convinced that science will continue to make progress and unravel more and more mysteries. Only time can tell. This is a nice introduction to an exciting new domain of studies, but beware: things are evolving so fast in this field, that a book such as this quickly can become outdated.
Profile Image for ·Karen·.
614 reviews762 followers
March 21, 2018
'For every complicated problem there is a solution that is simple, direct, understandable, and wrong.' (H.L. Mencken)

And Biology is complex.

I see that it took nearly three months for me to read this. My sincere apologies to Adam Rutherford, for that length of time might constitute a reflection on his ability to engage, entertain, inform and delight. Not so, not so. I'm not sure why this stayed on my currently reading table for quite so long, because it is actually utterly fascinating. And not daunting at all, even to the biologically illiterate (moi). Mr. Rutherford has an excellent technique of finding relatable analogies to the complexity of genome mapping, frequently using letters, words, sentences as his vehicle to make DNA understandable, and cutting down false analogies on the way, the ones that only relate one complex incomprehensible concept to another, equally unknown quantity. I was never confused, and there's a particularly useful glossary at the back so that I could go and check (yet again) what an allele is, or an SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism in case you were wondering).

'Popular science'. That sounds dismissive. How about: clear, coherent science. Plus added humour.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,331 reviews118 followers
November 7, 2018
National Book Critics Circle Award Longlist for Nonfiction 2017. It has been roughly 15 years since the Human Genome Project determined that humans have about 20,000 genes. Surprisingly, this is less than either the roundworm or even a grain of rice. Everyone associated with the Project predicted thousands more—but they were wrong. Rutherford reports on the limits of what genes can tell us about ourselves. While they have helped us to understand the causes of some diseases; they have not helped us to eradicate or cure them.

The science writer/geneticist points out that the modern human genome began in Africa around 300,000 years ago and developed web-like as ancient hominins coalesced into a single species. Further, genetic research has shown that race is not identifiable in the genome. Indeed, gene research has shown that a Namibian and a Nigerian have more genetic similarities with a Swede than they do each other. “Genetics has shown that people are different and these differences cluster according to geography and culture but never in a way that aligns with the traditional concepts of human races.”

Rutherford takes issue with the brash marketing claims of some DNA companies that suggest they can identify ancestry lineage down to a specific Native American tribe. Such precision is just not possible. And health claims are just as shaky. For example, the gene marker associated with Alzheimer’s does not ensure they will get the disease. Nor does the absence of the gene marker protect them.

Recommend this gene overview by the popular science writer.
Profile Image for Don Lundman.
23 reviews2 followers
December 26, 2017
"A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived" was a disappointment. The book is at least two drafts away from being ready for publication. It reads as if dictated by a busy, distracted, garrulous man bent on clearing his calendar for a more interesting and important project. Disorganized. Poorly edited. Thin. Thoughts are introduced but never elaborated fully. A title in search of content. I can't think why it has become so popular.
Profile Image for Marica.
343 reviews134 followers
May 27, 2018
Verdi, lisci, gialli, rugosi: gli Antenati
E’ un libro divulgativo sulla genetica, scritto in modo abbastanza accattivante, cioè veicolando le informazioni con esempi accessibili e di interesse generale. L’autore umanizza l’argomento entrando in prima persona col suo corredo genetico, un po’ inglese di origini scandinave e un po’ indiano: risultato, aspetto spagnolo o italiano. A me è piaciuto, ho aumentato la mia conoscenza sull’argomento che trovo affascinante dal tempo dei piselli verdi e lisci oppure gialli e rugosi. L’argomento è di grande attualità e di anno in anno si scoprono sempre molte cose nuove, per es sui diversi intrecci di primati avvenuti nei vari continenti che hanno portato a caratteristiche somatiche diverse oppure sulle malattie genetiche, cioè su dove nel DNA risieda l’errore che determina il malfunzionamento. Ho scoperto che gli studiosi possono risalire lungo la genealogia di un uomo seguendo la linea maschile, basandosi sul cromosoma Y che si può ricevere solo dal padre, oppure seguendo la linea femminile, basandosi sul DNA mitocondriale che si riceve dalla madre. Nel caso delle donne si può risalire solo lungo la linea femminile perché non hanno il cromosoma Y. Mi piacerebbe aver capito tutto, ma ci vorrebbe una cultura specialistica che mi manca. Una divulgazione anche più efficace mi dicono l’abbia fatta Dawkins.
Profile Image for Brian Clegg.
Author 203 books2,568 followers
September 15, 2016
Science books can sometimes be rather stuffy or prissy - but no one can accuse Adam Rutherford of this. In his exploration of 'the stories in our genes' that word 'stories' is foremost - and Rutherford proves himself time and again to be an accomplished storyteller. His style is sometimes extremely colloquial (and very British) - so at one point, when referring to the way some people react to the smell of a particular steroid he says 'to many it honks like stale urine' and rather than say 'what really interests me' he is likely to remark 'what turns me on'.

I love the many meanders that Rutherford takes along the way, whether it's the horrendously inbred family tree of the Hapsburgs resulting in the sad case of Charles II, or the unique genetic laboratory provided by the small and relatively isolated population of Iceland. Rutherford is at his best when exploring an apparently trivial but genuinely interesting topic like variations in earwax type. This is dependent on a single gene and his exploration of its distribution across the world is delightful. This kind of material brings a lot of QI appeal to the book.

Though there is coverage of that 'everyone who every lived', for the UK reader there is lots specific to our origins and how groupings we tend to make don't necessarily make any sense genetically. For instance, Rutherford points out that Scottish Celts are more different from Welsh Celts than either are from the English. There's also plenty of delving into the past, from the latest version of Out of Africa to our relationship (literally) with Neanderthals.

Darwin, as you might imagine, features quite a lot. I'd say that Rutherford rather overdoes the Darwin fandom, calling him 'the greatest of all scientists across all disciplines.' I certainly don't want to do Darwin down, as he certainly made a great contribution, but as the work of Wallace and others show, his ideas were very much in the air, so if you really want to make the invidious comparison of scientists this way I'd be inclined to say someone like Einstein, who with general relativity came up with something that really came out of the blue, probably should be ranked higher.

What begins with a genetic exploration of early humans takes us into all kinds of genetic adventures (including a section where Rutherford crushes a pathetic attempt to identify Jack the Ripper that was scientifically full of holes). While I'd recommend reading Henry Gee's The Accidental Species as well for more of the paleontology of early humans, and the evolutionary considerations of our ending up the way we have, Rutherford makes humankind's genetic origins and identity his own.

Mostly the book is hard to fault. Sometimes it felt just a bit too unstructured - jumping all over the place in the manner of an over-excited mountain goat. And the final two main chapters lacked some of the engagement of the others. There was a fascinating section on the worrying legal cases where the defence has been ‘my genes made me do it’, but that apart, there’s an awful lot at the specific gene level, whether it’s the ins and outs of the Human Genome Project or the relationship of genes and diseases, and after a while, to the non-biologist, this got a bit samey.

Having said that, it’s hard to see how Rutherford could have written the book without these chapters and overall it’s a magnificent achievement, a big, friendly bear of a book that pummels the reader with delightful stories and no doubt would buy you a drink if it could. I can’t help but wonder if the cover was deliberately designed to pick up DNA - it has become far more marked than any book I can ever remember reading - if it was, it wouldn’t surprise me because Rutherford fills his book with clever little detail like this. Either way, it’s a fantastic popular science read.
Profile Image for Ian.
723 reviews65 followers
March 11, 2018
There are two parts to this book. The first “How We Came to Be”, looks at the genetic evidence around human evolution. It touches on Neanderthals, Denisovans and Flores Man (DNA can’t be recovered from earlier species) before looking at the evolution of modern H. sapiens. It also covers the timescale under which an individual’s family history will intersect with those of everyone else, and it’s probably put me off ever trying to use one of those commercial companies who promise to reveal your ancestry via your DNA (something that I had thought about, I must admit).

I thought Part I was excellent. Part II, “Who We Are Now” is a slight drier read but still has plenty to recommend it. There are too many themes to summarise, but I think the author most wants to convey the message that there is never a single gene that explains any aspect of personality or behaviour. Genes do not act in isolation of one another, and all act in concert with environmental influences. “It’s a lot more complicated than you think” would be a one-line summary.

There’s quite a lot of humour in the book, no doubt included in a conscious attempt to retain the interest of the general reader. For me it mostly fell flat. One or two references made me smile but on the whole I found the humour a bit forced.

As the author acknowledges, this is a field where new discoveries are being made all the time. It probably won’t be too many years before the book is out of date. In the meantime, this is an excellent overview for the layman.
Profile Image for Tanja Berg.
1,863 reviews424 followers
August 18, 2018
This book explores the latest discoveries made from are genes. The human genome was first laid bare in 2003 or so, and since then a lot has happened. However, this books makes abundantly clear that complex human behavior cannot be explained by genes alone. It is not "nature versus nurture" but "nature via nurture".

The books also picks apart our definition of race, the ones that are based on how we look. It is fairly meaningless since there are more differences in the genes within "racial" groups than between. The most genetic variation in human being is found in Africa. The rest of us are descended from the narrow pool of genes carried by the people who left that continent.

This is a very good introduction to the field of genetics, which will help you automatically realize that many of the headlines referring to new-found genes are more founded on the wish to sell papers and get clicks, than on real science. The author is incredibly funny, so this is not dry. Some parts are quite technical, but for most part, this is definitely aimed at lay persons. Definitely recommended.
Profile Image for Andrea.
435 reviews151 followers
August 16, 2017
My thanks go out to NetGalley and The Experiment for providing me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Marvellous book, and I couldn't get enough of it! The author does a great job rounding up exactly what makes us, humans, unique and at the same time homogeneous. My favourite sections were of course on our relation to other species of Hominids and the failed attempts by some scientists to show correlation between genetics and predisposal to criminal behaviour. Written in an accessible language, this work will be a fine compliment to The Gene: An Intimate History.
Profile Image for Mal Warwick.
Author 29 books403 followers
December 13, 2017
There is no gene for evil. Black people have no genetic predisposition to excel at sports. Tay-Sachs is not a Jewish disease. Native Americans are not genetically predisposed to alcoholism. And, of course, there is no such thing as a “race” in genetics. These are a few of the many axes Adam Rutherford grinds in his ambitious new book, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes.

Rutherford's book consists of two parts. Part One, “How We Came to Be,” lives up to the title for the most part. He outlines the emergence of Homo sapiens as the sole survivor of several human species. (All members of the genus Homo are human. This includes Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo erectus, and an as yet unknown number of other species.) Using the latest findings from genetic research, the author traces the movements of various human populations over 200,000 years since the first anatomically modern human walked the Earth. Rutherford emphasizes that the patterns of migration were far more complex than earlier studies have led us to believe—and interbreeding among human species far more extensive.

In Part Two, “Who We Are Now,” Rutherford departs from the promise of the title to survey the findings of genetic research about some of the many popular misconceptions about race and genetics. Here are a few highlights:

Are African-Americans uniquely well-suited to play basketball? Not so, he writes. “The Dutch are the tallest people on average on Earth, and I have little doubt that if there were similar numbers of Dutch people as there are Americans, and basketball were as culturally important and ubiquitous, then they would produce teams as good as the LA Lakers.”
Do some people commit awful crimes because their genes program them to do so? “No one will ever find a gene for ‘evil,’ or for beauty, or for musical genius, or for scientific genius, because they don’t exist. DNA is not destiny.”
What about that “Jewish disease” Tay-Sachs? “Tay-Sachs . . . is seen at roughly the same frequency in Cajuns in Louisiana, and French Canadians in Quebec. There is no such thing as a Jewish disease, because Jews are not a genetically distinct group of people.”
What about race? The visible differences between, say, East Asians and Africans suggest that races are real, don’t they? Well, no. Not at all. As Rutherford makes clear, “certain genetic groupings do roughly correspond to geography. But not exclusively, and not essentially.” There is, in fact, no such thing as “race” in genetics. “Eighty-five percent of human variation, according to the genetic differences in blood groups,” Rutherford writes, “was seen in the same racial groups. Of the remaining 15 percent, only 8 percent accounted for differences between one racial group and another.” In other words, those visible differences among the races are trivial from a genetic perspective. The genetic differences among any two Africans from different parts of the continent are almost certainly greater than the differences between either of them and a pale, blond, blue-eyed Scandinavian. This should be obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of genetics, Rutherford suggests. When Homo sapiens began migrating out of Africa and radiating around the world, only small groups left the motherland. The genetic diversity among them was immeasurably smaller than that of the much larger numbers they left behind.

The author explains at length that the Human Genome Project did not decode the whole genome. In fact, more than 98 percent of the three billion letters on the genome do not encode for proteins, which is the primary function of genes. These non-coding letters have been given the unfortunate and misleading name of “junk DNA.” Many do have discernible and important functions. But the function of most junk DNA is not understood.

Scientists are in the very earliest stages of tapping the power of genetics to address disease. As of now, “the number of diseases that have been eradicated as a result of our knowing the genome? Zero. The number of diseases that have been cured as a result of gene therapy? Zero.” The Human Genome Project was a beginning, not an end. Today, “DNA is used routinely in the diagnosis of dozens of cancers, of heart arrhythmias, in identifying the causes of thousands of diseases too rare to have historically warranted major research projects.” But science today is merely scratching the surface of this potential.

Rutherford clearly knows his stuff. But he’s far from infallible. He’s dismissive of linguistic studies that inform our understanding of prehistorical migration patterns. Why? He doesn’t explain. He’s inconsistent about the number of years when Homo sapiens first entered the Americas, citing numbers all the way from 12,000 years to more than 24,000. He refers on numerous occasions to findings from the for-profit companies 23andme and BritainsDNA, both of which provide genetic profiles to individuals for a price. But he fails to mention the National Geographic Genographic Project, which predates them both and now encompasses genetic records from more than 800,000 people. And he first states that individuals from different species can't mate and produce fertile offspring, then fails to explain how Homo sapiens and Neanderthals together produced so many of the rest of us.

British geneticist and broadcaster Adam Rutherford is a former editor of the journal Nature. He hosts the BBC Radio 4 program Inside Science.
Profile Image for Gary  Beauregard Bottomley.
977 reviews580 followers
March 31, 2023
Rutherford tells stories well. A well told science story entwined with facts is the best bulwark against pseudo-science and conspiracy theories.

Our culture determines our genes just as our genes determine how we live and that theme rolls throughout this book.

The author also would from time from time totally mock evolutionary psychology for the incoherent mess that it really is and show how their ‘just-so-stories’ can be incredibly misguided. I fell for evo psych at one time and now I am over it and see it for the mostly discredited wad of gunk that it is. I wished I had read this book in 2016 instead of today and it would have saved me from believing false crap.

Rolling your tongue is not predetermined by genetics in as much as 7 out of 33 randomly chosen identical twin pairs seem to not support that hypothesis, the Jack-the-ripper killer has not been reliably determined from DNA as was falsely reported and debunked within this book and sadly I had fell for those media reports, and DNA family tree narratives are as reliable as astrological charts.

Good story telling using science makes for the world’s best defense against creating false realities. This book is six years old, but I found it just as relevant today as when it was written.

This book is freely available on Hoopla in audio format for those with an account.
Profile Image for Raquel.
75 reviews53 followers
June 22, 2017
Mini review in English / Reseña completa en español

It must not be easy to write about the story in our genes, the genes of humankind, in a very accesible, highly gripping way, full of delightful (british) humour (and nerdy references!).

Yet in A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, Adam Rutherford achieves it, and makes you feel passionate about it. Along a very ingenious drawn narration, from the beginning to the present, he touches such sensible topics as endogamy, racism (really impressive chapter), and debunks myths such as "the gene of evil" brilliantly. His message is clear: reality (and therefore, science) isn't as simplistic as some want to sell, but it's much more interesting.

Fascinating. I really can't recommend it enough, you'll learn a lot. Even though it is brief, I must admit I had never thought I'd finish it in only one week.


No creo que sea nada sencillo escribir sobre la historia que relatan nuestros genes, la historia del ser humano desde un punto de vista científico, de una manera clara, muy accesible (lo prometo), muy amena y con un fino (y muy británico) sentido del humor (con referencias literarias y de la cultura popular que se agradecen).

Pero Adam Rutherford consigue mucho más que eso. Transmite (y contagia) además su pasión.

A lo largo de una narración ingeniosamente hilada, comenzando por los orígenes de la humanidad de mano de la paleontología, pasando por la Edad Media Europea hasta una increíble reflexión sobre nuestro futuro, el autor trata temas tan sensibles como la endogamia, el racismo (impresionante este capítulo), la eugenesia, o desmonta mitos como el "gen de la maldad" de forma brillante.

Creo que existen tres cuestiones fundamentales sobre las que pivota este relato de nuestra historia:

- Sexo: lo que siempre lo complicado todo, desde tiempos inmemoriables. El homo sapiens ha practicado *mucho* sexo, lo que no solo hace inconsistente cualquier intento de clasificarnos racialmente, sino que incluso ha desdibujado el concepto del ser humano como especie, tal y como se entendía hasta hace bien poco.

- Ego: es una cuestión recurrente a lo largo de todo este relato (y por supuesto de la humanidad). Al ser humano le fascina el ser humano. Y si bien la curiosidad es aquello que nos define, lo que nos hace "humanos", también es un arma de doble filo del que se aprovecharán empresas para lucrarse a base de vender pseudociencia, o cobrarte un buen dinero por un sinsentido de test genético.

- Poder: si unes el ansia por la perpetuación en el poder con el sexo, tendrás endogamia (véase el capítulo dedicado a las monarquías europeas...). Y si unes poder con ego, tendrás algo más perverso aún: el racismo como institución, la búsqueda en la ciencia de la legitimación de la supremacía blanca.

Y en épocas más recientes se le suma el hambre de los medios por el titular fácil, la guerra por los clicks que tienen como consecuencia titulares sensacionalistas, con explicaciones científicas mal explicadas cuando no completamente érroneas, que poco ayudan a acabar con falsos mitos sobre la genética y el determinismo biológico.

El mensaje es claro: la realidad (y con ello la ciencia) nunca es tan simplista como algunos nos quieren vender, pero es muchísimo más interesante.

"Deberíamos tener cuidado de aprender y entender las cosas, de estar tan al día como sea posible, de no vivir apabullados por mitos y equívocos. (...) Perpetuamos mitos aferrándonos a explicaciones simples, sin sumergirnos en la extraordinaria complejidad de lo que significa ser humano."

No esperaba leerlo en tan solo una semana. Una lectura fascinante.

No apto para aquellos que busquen una "teoría del todo". Recomendadísimo para todos los demás.

Sobre la edición: Fantástica edición y traducción de la editorial Pasado y Presente. Es raro que prefiera la portada española, pero si al hecho de que me parece más inteligente usar un plano de metro como representación del entramado "árbol" de la humanidad, añades a la familia Weasley, me matas.
Profile Image for Albert Norton.
Author 8 books6 followers
January 7, 2018
I picked up this book because I had in mind to get current (as a layman) on the state of DNA research, after hearing so much hoopla about mapping of the human genome some years ago.

The epiphanies I hoped for never arrived. That's not entirely Rutherford's fault. As he points out in the book, it's a complex subject, and ancestry-mapping is not the main point, there are bigger fish to fry, like treating or curing inherited disease.

Still, DNA research tells us a lot, but most of what Rutherford relates you probably know intuitively. Rutherford explains, genetically, lactose intolerance, which is of interest to me. He explains that, contrary to a report a few years ago in the UK, redheads will not go extinct. There is more genetic variation among members of the same race, than among two randomly-chosen people of two races. Somewhat interesting. Lots of anecdotal explanations, which are really not the state-of-the-art, but rather corrections of common misunderstandings.

One interesting insight is a mathematical understanding of how our ancestry works. Rutherford explains how, for example, it is actually true that nearly everyone with any European ancestry is related to the great Charlemagne. As you trace your tree back up the generations, you very quickly get to overlaps, to the point that our ancestry is one great network, rather than an ever-dwindling step-down of branches into the main trunk, which is you. For this reason, Rutherford explains, it is possible to pinpoint to a mere 3600 years ago the most recent date on which there was a single common ancestor of everyone now alive.

I was disappointed with this book because I felt I came away with very little that was new, even for someone like me not routinely immersed in the study of genetics or ancestry. I admit, though, that I might have a more charitable attitude toward Rutherford, if he had a more charitable attitude toward those with whom he disagrees. Here's what he has to say about people who don't buy entirely into the non-teleological, naturalist version of evolution as the explanation of all biological development and of the first life as well. Early in his book he talks over his glasses at us thusly: "Nowadays, only the willfully ignorant dismiss the truth that we evolved from earlier ancestors."

So much for critical thinking. "[C]reationism," he says, is "frothing with risible fallacies." Creationists are "dolts." They make "zombie arguments." Ambiguously, either the creationists or their arguments are "unthinking and mindless, tired and drooling, relentlessly shuffling along, impervious to reason, intelligence or debate, and desperately ugly."

Rutherford doesn't prove naturalistic evolution nor deal with any objections to it, before going straight to name-calling. He doesn't do that because he worships Darwin, and gives no indication of having ever heard of a teleological version of biological evolution. Though this book isn't mainly about Darwin or about evolution, Rutherford gushes his idolatrous admiration. Darwin is a "star," a "genius," "the greatest of all scientists," "at the very top of the intellectual pile."

Fine. Everyone has heroes. But I think there is one person Rutherford admires even more: himself. His smugness gets old fast, and detracts from what might otherwise be a diverting if superficial stroll through contemporary thinking on genetics.
Profile Image for Ana.
805 reviews595 followers
October 11, 2017
A very interesting read on genetics and the common mistakes that people make when thinking about DNA and its role in human life. Filled with fun trivia information about the subject and weaved together with historical backgrounds on big personalities in the sciences or areas of research that we should all be familiar with. Worth the read.
Profile Image for Jim.
Author 7 books2,028 followers
July 20, 2020
A lot of interesting information, but a bit of a slog due to repetition. He's covering a huge swath of time & geography. That's difficult & he managed to break it up fairly well as is shown in the table of contents below. It is a credible effort, but it had problems throughout. Well narrated & I can cautiously recommend reading this, but I've certainly read better books on genes & human history. 3.5 stars rounded down because his bias is just too obvious.

He bent the facts to fit his agenda a bit too often. He makes a big deal out of the math which shows that the genetic variance within a race is greater than between races however they're defined. (I had no idea there were so many!) He points out how much harm these ideas have caused in great detail (Agreed!) & he takes Nicholas Wade to task generally for his ideas in this area, but never meets any of them head on & avoids how often they work well in real life. For instance, he never pointed out just how the 3 major race idea works in a field like forensics (bodies are often identified by race due to bone structure differences) & medical treatments/issues since that would have undercut his argument badly.

His discussion of Darwin's cousin Galton is another example of pretty good with gaping holes. Galton was a 'great' man, both for good & ill, which Rutherford makes clear. He mentions Roosevelt, Churchill, & Stopes, but didn't mention Margaret Sanger or Madison Grant (Bronx Zoo, Bison Society, & a couple of parks). Perhaps that's because he's from the UK, but he also ignored the role Galton's eugenics ideas had in forming the modern conservation & ecological movements. Sanger's efforts led to Planned Parenthood while Grant's book went on to become Hitler's bible. Vogt, the father of the modern ecology movement & a director of PP, coupled Galton's ideas with those of Malthus. Maybe all that would have been too much of a tangle, but I find it fascinating how such great ideas & intentions went so right & wrong. He could & should have found room for this, but he spent too much time repetitiously hammering his point home.

That last sentence pretty much sums up the book: good points that are repetitiously hammered into the reader at the expense of full exploration of the topic. He obviously knows his field & his explanations into just how complex & far reaching minor genetic changes can be are excellent, but his focused PC bias is tough to take at times.

Table of Contents
1: Horny and mobile
2: The first European union
3: When we were kings
i: The king lives on
ii: Richard III, Act VI
iii: The king is dead . . .
4: The end of race
5: The most wondrous map ever produced by humankind
6: Fate
7: A short introduction to the future of humankind
Profile Image for James.
425 reviews
October 20, 2018
‘A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived’ (2016) by Adam Rutherford – is a fascinating and largely compelling popular science introduction to the world and history of human genetics and genomics. Rutherford takes us on a journey – one which is all about our shared human history, as viewed through the lens of genetics and which Rutherford split into two parts:

1. How we came to be
2. Who we are now

‘Brief History’ is an amazing journey whichever way it’s viewed and takes us from the very origins of humans (moreover our genetic pre-homosapien ancestors) in Africa, through the 'Out of Africa' migration and beyond; from the very beginnings of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection; through Crick and Watson’s discovery of DNA, all the way to today’s cutting edge scientific research – taking in all manner of fascinating things along the way, such as the exhumation and positive identification of Richard III from his unmarked grave beneath a car park in Leicester, to the myths surrounding the so-called positive identification of ‘Jack the Ripper’.

Rutherford’s book – whether for the scientist and non-scientist alike, is an engaging and thought-provoking history, in which Rutherford successfully and very easily debunks so many of the quasi-scientific and media promoted myths concerning genetics (‘redheads to become extinct?’) and provides the reader with a largely accessible account of our history interlinked with the history, findings and developments within the science of human genetics.

As very much a non-scientist, I cannot pretend to fully understand all of the ideas and concepts outlined in ‘Brief History’ – nevertheless Rutherford’s book, whilst very occasionally verging on the esoteric, is neither patronising nor impenetrable. Moreover, Rutherford provides us with a fascinating, thought-provoking book concerning our amazing shared history – an inspired and inspiring read.
Profile Image for Mandy.
3,148 reviews266 followers
August 11, 2017
The trouble with popular science books is that at some point they have to get down and dirty with real hard science, and however hard the author tries, and however skilled he is at making the difficult accessible, that’s one big stumbling block for the non-scientists out there. I so wanted to be more engaged with this book. Genetics is important, right? We need to understand the subject. It explains our past and informs out future. Adam Rutherford has no doubt done his best, but his best just isn’t good enough. The book is so long-winded, muddled and rambling that the science gets lost along the way. A few anecdotes do not a good science book make. And it seems (though I am not qualified to judge) that he makes quite a few mistakes and misinterprets the data on more than one occasion. I can’t comment on that but I didn’t feel that I came away from struggling through the book with any clear idea of what he was actually saying. There are some interesting nuggets here, for sure, but they get lost in all those words. A brave, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at making genetics clear for the layman.
Profile Image for Emiliya Bozhilova.
1,259 reviews185 followers
April 10, 2021
Заявката за глобалност на темата от заглавието си остава неосъществена. Фокусът върху Европа и по-конкретно Великобритания е изключително силен и доминира. Даже е твърде британско! Също така нямаше да е зле това изследване да е с 1/3 или даже 1/2 по-кратко, или просто структурирано по-стегнато - хаосът се допълва от чести повторения или пък прескачания, или лирически отклонения. Твърде много думи.

Но има и интересни факти, просто малко трудно изплуват сред изобилието от общи приказки, британоцентризъм и отклонения:
1. Модерната генетика е едва прохождаща наука на няколко десетилетия. Най-интересните разкрития тепърва предстоят. Знае се, че почти нищо не се знае.
2. Преди 100,000 години ние всички (Homo Sapiens) сме били африканци и тъмнокожи. Генетично раса не съществува. Но след разселването из континентите ДНК започва да отразява някои нови “настройки”. Заради климатичните условия и количеството слънчева светлина се появяват светлите коса, кожа и очи. Появява се мутация в Европа и за лактозата. Чумата също оставя генетичен отпечатък. ДНК все още се развива.
3. Европейците са отчасти неандерталци, а част от азиатците са наследници и на Денисовия човек. Затова хималайците са така адаптирани към височините - тази генна мутация не е присъща на Homo Sapiens, взел я е от денисовия човек. Неандерталците и денисовците не са предшественици на Homo Sapiens, a по-скоро “братовчеди” от същия вид. И да, говорели са. И да, живи са чрез ДНК-то, което са ни оставили, преди да си отидат.
3. През 14-ти век предците на всички европейци са общи. Всички сме братовчеди. Теорията се доказва с ДНК изследвания, но всъщност е математическа. Просто количеството предци на всеки жив човек днес надвишават всички живели хора на планетата, така че просто имаме общи предци. Въпрос на изчисления са единствено броят на поколенията.
4. Първите генетици са били расисти в най-лошия смисъл: обяснявали научно защо едни хора не само може, но трябва да бъдат управлявани от други, защото просто нямат генетичния капацитет да се оправят сами. Да живее Британската Империя! Хитлер идва доста по-късно и просто ползва готовата база. От нас зависи какво ще правим нататък, гените са вече тук.

Странно е отношението на съвременната генетика с термина “раса”. От предпазливост и страх от некоректно разбиране чак се стига до крайни оправдания, което дразни. Генетиката все още търси себе си, но предвид кратката история на разгадаването на човешкия геном и миналите наслагвания, е разбираемо.

В научнопопулярната литература понякога опитът за твърде “народен” език оказва мечешка услуга на автора. Нищо не миже да замени яснотата и структурата. Все пак за прелистване с цел общо запознаване заглавието е достатъчно интересно.

2,5 звезди
Profile Image for Elizabeth Theiss Smith.
296 reviews83 followers
December 20, 2017
Where did you come from? Who are your ancestors? Is there a queen, a president, or a pirate in your past? Rutherford's answer to this last question is yes. In the end, we are all interrelated because our gene pool working backwards was rather small. For example, 23andMe tells me I am related to Marie Antoinette. Rutherford suggests holding off on claiming royal property and privilege because so are millions of other people.

Homo sapiens emerged from Africa at least years ago. Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other hominids were already inhabiting the places they wandered. The evidence in our DNA suggests that our ancestors mated with them. Oddly, it was male Homo sapiens who mated with female Neanderthals. The fact that mating occurred calls into question the labeling of Neanderthals and Denisovans as other species of human. By definition, a species is made up of organisms capable of mating and producing offspring. So either we need to patch up the definition of species or welcome Neanderthals into the human species.

One of the most fascinating sections of the book was the chapter on race because it examines differences in the genome and concludes that there is no genetic basis for race. Variation is endemic to genetics because every human will have about 100 genetic changes out of about 3 billion. These mutations are largely inconsequential but those that are adaptive to the population's environment will spread. So Africans have developed more melanin pigment in their skin to screen out the strong sun. Scandinavians have developed lighter skin and hair pigmentation to absorb more sun in less sunny climates. However, the variation between the African's genome and the Scandinavian's genome other than coding for melanin are inconsequential. Geneticists cannot see race. It is a cultural construct with no basis in science.

The chapter on Richard III, dubbed the King in the Car Park, was especially interesting to me, as I followed the story as it was unfolding in the news. Richard III died in battle and his dead body paraded before jeering crowds before being buried unceremoniously in the Greyfriar's cemetery. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, Greyfriars was transferred to private hands. In recent excavations for a car park, bones were found that were consistent with descriptions of Richard III's death. Geneticists were able to find two individuals related to Richard and confirm the identity of the bones. It was an exciting bit of forensic defective work that Rutherford explains well.

Although the writer's style annoyed me at times, this book is well worth reading for its clear explanations of the latest genetic research (up to 2016) and how to interpret it. I was disappointed in its failure to incorporate some of the latest work on epigenetics, which he mentions only in passing. Some readers may find the more technical explanations challenging. It took me a few weeks to absorb the book, but it was well worth the time.
Profile Image for Anima.
432 reviews55 followers
November 30, 2017
'The key idea that Rutherford unveils in this riveting volume is that human genomics—the study of our DNA—is radically altering our understanding of our own past.....

But the desire to understand heritage, Rutherford reminds us, is an ancient desire—and twisted into that desire are our concerns about identity and relationships, and our sense of self.....

As Rutherford concludes, we cannot investigate “heritage” simply by studying DNA; we also need to understand the social and political history of heritage. In this endlessly intriguing book, we are thus not just presented with the mini-history of the human genome, but also with a sweeping history of our attempt to grapple with the human genome.'

SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE ( author of The Gene and the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Emperor of All Maladies)

'We only have to go back a few dozen centuries to see that most of the 7 billion of us alive today are descended from a tiny handful of people, the population of a village.....

All human genomes host the same genes, but they all may be slightly different, which accounts for the fact that we are all incredibly similar, and utterly unique."
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