In 2000 I traveled to Iceland, lured not by the breathtaking landscape (featured in numerous television and film productions, including Game of Thrones) but by the genetics. Kári Stefánsson, whose Viking ancestry ripples through every inch of his taut 6-foot-4 frame and fierce demeanor, had co-founded deCODE Genetics (now part of Amgen) to scrutinize the genetic architecture of the country’s 300,000 citizens. This trove of data continues to yield information on mutations underlying a host of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and mental illness.
Stefánsson’s quest was aided by Icelanders’ proud, centuries-old tradition of documenting their genealogy (the country established the world’s first parliament in AD 930). Stefánsson traced his own family tree back some 30 generations to a legend of the Icelandic Sagas, Egill Skallagrímsson — a poet, a warrior (he reputedly claimed his first victim at the tender age of 7 by splitting his skull with an axe) and, Stefánsson joked, the ugliest man in the world.
I’d never encountered anyone able to track his family tree back a millennium and said as much to a young deCODE scientist. “Oh, that’s nothing,” he shrugged. “We can all do that!”
We may not have deCODE’s resources, but most of us are interested to some degree in our family history and geographic origins. In 2001 Oxford University geneticist Brian Sykes tapped into this natural curiosity: His bestseller, The Seven Daughters of Eve, cleverly personified the seven common mitochondrial DNA haplotypes (recall that mitochondrial DNA is exclusively transmitted through the maternal line), ascribing mythical figures to each haplogroup classification (V is for Velda, X is for Xenia, etc.). But our ability to interrogate entire genomes has since been transformed. More than five million customers have enrolled with personal genomics companies such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe, gaining insights into their ancestral and geographic roots.
Enter British author and BBC radio broadcaster Adam Rutherford, who uses genomic insights to fuel a rollercoaster tour of human history and evolution. Like any good episode of Game of Thrones, his book A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is laced with plenty of sex and a modicum of incest. It’s an audacious undertaking, but Rutherford is a bold, confident storyteller. The book was published last year in the United Kingdom; it lands in the U.S. with a new chapter on Native Americans and adorned with a glowing foreword by Siddhartha Mukherjee (author of The Gene).
Rutherford dedicates the book to another superb popularizer of science and evolution, Welsh geneticist Steve Jones, whose 1993 book The Language of the Genes remains a classic of the genre. Rutherford, who took lectures from Jones at University College London, emulates Jones’ ballsy, humorous style of science writing; I don’t think it’s a stretch to view Rutherford as Jones’ heir apparent.
A Brief History takes us on a whirlwind voyage of human history and evolution, in which Rutherford uses fresh insights from genomic analysis of both ancient and modern DNA to reveal new clues into human migration and adaptation. We meet fossil hunters tracing human origins, including our cohabitation with Neanderthals, the exodus from Africa, and evolutionary adaptation in populations across Europe and Asia.
He is unafraid to call out the delusional and the scam artists, from creationists to predatory genealogy firms who would have us believe that people sporting ginger hair face extinction from climate change, or that claim to find links to various tribes, emperors, or royalty.
Rutherford rightly pays tribute to Svante Pääbo, the paleogeneticist who pioneered techniques for isolating DNA specimens from precious bones and teeth of Neanderthals and Denisovans. When Pääbo extracted the first wisps of Neanderthal DNA (from the relatively abundant mitochondrial genome) in the late 1990s, the mitochondrial DNA sequence appeared so unique that the journal Cell proclaimed on its cover: “Neanderthals are not our ancestors.”
But further analysis has demonstrated that Neanderthals were a much more intimate part of our family tree. Indeed, if you are of European descent, you almost certainly have a smattering (2 to 3 percent) of Neanderthal DNA lurking in your genome. Throughout the book, Rutherford neatly weaves in new research, including the nugget that “our genomes are slowly purging themselves of Neanderthal DNA.”
Why the Neanderthals vanished from earth some 40,000 years ago — apart from these vestigial signatures — remains a mystery. Perhaps Homo sapiens hunted them off, or monopolized food sources? Perhaps a warming climate or a genetic bottleneck was responsible? “The Neanderthals were a proto-species, an embryonic light that flickered in evolutionary time,” Rutherford writes. “Whatever the reason for their dwindling from not many to none, we carry their genes, and their immortality will be as enduring as our own.”
In the best chapter, called “When We Were Kings,” Rutherford uses Charlemagne (introduced like a Game of Thrones character — the “Carolingian King of the Franks, Holy Roman Emperor, the great European conciliator”) to illustrate how interrelated we all are. Our pedigrees start to fold in on themselves once we go back more than a few generations; if they didn’t, “your family tree when Charlemagne was Le Grand Fromage would harbor around 137,438,953,472 individuals on it — more people than were alive then, now, or in total.”
Rutherford proves a fearless narrator. He is unafraid to call out the delusional and the scam artists, from creationists to predatory genealogy firms who would have us believe that people sporting ginger hair face extinction from climate change, or who claim to find links to various tribes, emperors, or royalty. Such companies push narratives that are “largely unsupportable, possibly true, or generically accurate for millions, and underwritten by thinly stretched DNA data.”
The book arrives in the U.S. at a time of heightened racial tensions, highlighted by the August 2017 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. A recent report by UCLA sociologists Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan documented the predicament of white supremacists who have learned from ancestry DNA tests that their genome is not as purely European as they had anticipated. They would benefit from Rutherford’s central message, captured in a passage from a 2004 paper in Nature co-authored by Yale University statistician Joseph Chang:
“No matter the languages we speak or the colour 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.”