A few weeks ago I attended a talk at the How To Academy delivered by the ultra brainy David Reich on his new book, ‘Who We Are and How We Got Here’. Reich is a professor of genetics at Harvard University and I got the distinct impression he had mistaken the audience for his third year undergrad students. He dove right in with genomes and mutations and I found myself struggling to keep up. I got the general gist of course, but the rest I thought I would leave to the signed copy of the book that I received at the event.
The book wasn’t exactly a walk in the park either, but at least I could re-read the tricky scientific bits in a vain attempt to make them stick to my stubborn brain. Reich is clearly a geneticist first and a writer second (I think we would all be spitting feathers if it was vice versa.) There were some concepts that could have been more simply described than they were, but if you can get yourself through the jargon, at the core of this book lie some fascinating insights.
Infact I actually emitted a breathless “wow!”, while ogling page 11, when Reich advised me that just going ten generations back, I am descended from 1,024 different ancestors (as are you and this isn’t even the impressive bit) and of those, due to the way that DNA is split down each generation, I only share DNA with half of them! Mind blowing people, mind-fricking-blowing! So if you, like me, thought that you were the product of everyone who came before you then you’re wrong. DNA appears to distance us from some of our ancestors while randomly aligning us more closely with others.
So much for the fun stuff, but what really resonated with me, being a citizen of world (regardless of what Theresa May has to say about it,) was Reich’s picture of how today’s various races have come about through fusion of other pre existing populations. So much for racist concepts of purity of race and biology, we pretty much all come from mixing with other races!
Who We Are and How We Got Here is a product of the massive advances in the field of extracting ancient DNA that have come about since 2015. Before that time DNA was agonisingly difficult to extract and study, but emerging techniques changed the ability and the cost for scientists to do this and the field of genetics research has been through explosive growth ever since. Gradually as new specimen bones are discovered the new technology allows for the entire DNA history of that individual to be mapped and each new find fills in another part of the jigsaw.
It is this very technology that has driven the growth in DNA profiling services for ordinary individuals, allowing them to delve into their history and proudly proclaim that they are 1% Native American. I must say despite the fact that mine is just going to say that I’m 100% North Indian, while reading this book I was beginning to feel intrigued enough to try it out. However Reich is wary of these commercial ventures, which he feels try too hard to tell the customer something interesting at the cost of accuracy. So the jury is still out…
This book also grapples with some interesting social and ethical issues. Is it OK to go around digging up dead people’s skeletons? What message are we trying to put out about race? Scientists have some sensitive issues on their hands. But Reich promises that whatever else happens in the area of genetic research, we are just at the pinnacle of discovery. He predicts more data, more revelations and a more peices to fall into place in the puzzle of Who We Are and How We Got Here.
Next Monday I’m going to be reading The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. Hope to see you on the blog again next week!