Book Review: Deep Ancestry

Deep Ancestry:  Inside The Genographic Project:  The Landmark DNA Quest To Decipher Our Distant Past, by Spencer Wells

I am going to have a lot of harsh things to say about this book and its approach, so I would like to begin by saying that I believe enough in the importance of understanding my own ancestry that I am a participant in the Genographic project myself through my own interest in genetic genealogy [1].  It does not particularly surprise me that so many people around the world wish to have some deeper understanding of their connection with other parts of humanity, or that genetic research has been involved in solving some exciting mysteries and in raising lots of questions for further research.  Nor does it surprise me that the National Geographic wishes to involve itself in this exciting research and to view the matter in a way that is particularly well-suited to better understanding historical geography and some of its puzzles.  This was not a book that brought many surprises, although on a certain level at least it was a pleasant book to read and an enjoyable one despite its flaws and shortcomings, about which I will have more to say anon.

This short book over a bit over 200 pages is divided into six chapters as well as an interesting appendix.  The first chapter gives a brief explanation of human migration patterns as well as genetic history.  After this the next chapter focus on an exploration of Y-DNA research with a look at the interesting genetic history of Thomas Jefferson and his descendants through Sally Hemmings.  The next chapter focuses on mtDNA and its importance in the trace of genetic information through women.  Another chapter looks at the transportation of genetic information through the settlement of North and South America by immigrants from Siberia and the phenomenon of genetic drift.  A look at the genome of South India and its role as part of a littoral immigration from Africa to Australia follows before the book looks at Africa as the supposed cradle of modern mankind and some of the mysteries of human habitation on that continent.  The book then contains a sizable appendix that describes the various haplogroups and their geographic distribution.  The book is full of maps and pleasant accounts of people whose interest in finding out more of their personal genetic background has helped increase our understanding for the history of humanity at large.

So far, so good, but there is a rub here.  What makes this book less enjoyable and certainly a great deal less insightful than it would otherwise be is the fact that the author appears to be devoted to a few bogus aspects of pseudoscience.  For one, the book is wedded to the evolutionary perspective, with shortcomings as diverse as a belief in bogus views on the origins of human beings and a mistaken belief that non-coding DNA is “junk,” which have been mercifully dispelled by a better understanding of DNA in the time after this book was written.  Likewise, the book posits beliefs in the “out of Africa” theory of human development and a belief in a consistent rate of DNA mutation which may or may not be true.  There is still a great deal in this book to enjoy, but the author’s explanations for the past are often just-so stories without a great deal of credibility.  Whatever we are able to find out about our history through genetic testing, something I am personally involved in, it is likely to tell us something different than what the author would expect based on his incorrect scientific worldview.  That does not mean, though, that this work is without its pleasures for those who are able to overcome the author’s shortcomings as an explainer of scientific advances in genetic genealogy.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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