Book Review: Who We Are And How We Got Here

Who We Are And How We Got Here:  Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, by David Reich

Although I am by no means fond of the evolutionary worldview of the author, a worldview that is shared by a great many writers of human prehistory [1], there is a great deal to enjoy about this book if one views it as a search for mysterious but clearly human relatives.  When viewed in that light this book can be highly entertaining.  This is not a book that deals with the question of identity on an individual level, but it seeks to understand how genetic research allows us to understand human beings on a population by population level, with the most interesting aspects of it being the way that human beings have repeatedly mixed over and over again to a great extent, allowing for a wide variety of genetic admixture thanks to questions of power imbalance and the willingness of human beings to sleep with anything that looks and feels suitable around them.  Whether or not one enjoys this particular idea of the author, there is a lot here for a reader to enjoy if they have an interest in genetic genealogy.

The contents of this book are close to 300 pages and are divided into three parts and twelve chapters.  In the first part the author discusses the deep history of our species (I), looking at how the genome explains who we are (1), what sort of encounters mankind had with Neanderthals (2), and how ancient DNA opened the floodgate to research on humanity’s past (3).  The second part of the book provides a regional history of how we got to where we are today (II) with a look at ghost populations of previously unknown groups (4), the making of modern Europe (5), the collision between two groups of people that formed India (6), the problematic search for Native American ancestors (7), the genetic origins of East Asians (8), and the difficult task of rejoining Africa to the human story (9).  The third and final part of the book discusses the genome as a disruptive force (III), showing the genomics of inequality (10), race and identity (11), and the future of ancient DNA (12).  After this the author closes with some notes and an index, after having written a book that is likely to cause a great deal of controversy and encourage people to debunk some of his speculations.

A book like this has to be taken with a very large grain of salt, or perhaps a sizable salt shaker.  The author is simultaneously someone trying to explain science to the reader as well as someone who is a rather obvious booster for science and genetic research in particular, which makes some of his writing rather muddled.  At key parts of this book the author shows himself to be trying to sell the idea of funding genetic research and engaging in research to the reader, even where that genetic research involves populations have have limited means or serious reservations about being involved in genetic research, as is the case in China and India, where there are laws that prevent people from being exported out of the country, or Native Americans who have viewed genetic research as another coercive way of losing their heritage or Africans whose impoverished state has made it tough to get enough genetic research to answer some basic questions about the continent’s migrations.  All in all, this book has a lot of entertainment value, but it is the sort of work that one cannot expect will remain relevant for very long in the face of research advances.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/04/06/book-review-ancestral-journeys/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/08/01/book-review-the-discovery-of-the-greek-bronze-age/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/07/16/book-review-sarum/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/03/08/book-review-the-last-lost-world/

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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