The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures

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9780670025558: The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures

· A New York Times Notable Book ·

“The richest, freshest, most fun book on genetics in some time.” —The New York Times Book Review


We are doomed to repeat history if we fail to learn from it, but how are we affected by the forces that are invisible to us? In The Invisible History of the Human Race Christine Kenneally draws on cutting-edge research to reveal how both historical artifacts and DNA tell us where we come from and where we may be going. While some books explore our genetic inheritance and popular television shows celebrate ancestry, this is the first book to explore how everything from DNA to emotions to names and the stories that form our lives are all part of our human legacy. Kenneally shows how trust is inherited in Africa, silence is passed down in Tasmania, and how the history of nations is written in our DNA. From fateful, ancient encounters to modern mass migrations and medical diagnoses, Kenneally explains how the forces that shaped the history of the world ultimately shape each human who inhabits it.

The Invisible History of the Human Race is a deeply researched, carefully crafted and provocative perspective on how our stories, psychology, and genetics affect our
past and our future.

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About the Author:

Christine Kenneally is an award-winning journalist and author who has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate, Time magazine, New Scientist, The Monthly, and other publications. She is the author of The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. She was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, and lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

We follow in the steps of our ancestry, and that cannot be broken.

—Midnight Oil

One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present.

—Golda Meir

There’s a moment somewhere between the North Pole and the South when I look out my window and see the top of the Himalayas. At first the shapes are clouds, but then they resolve into immense snow-covered crags, perfectly still in the cumulus sea. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen them before; I am always surprised. They are proof that I am somewhere very high and very strange. At thirty thousand feet light floods the plane. Ahead the night drapes across the earth. We barrel toward the darkness, and then we tunnel quickly through it. In a few hours, when we land, it will be morning.

I call my boyfriend’s attention to the window. “CB! Look!” He wonders if anyone is over there on the mountains. Perhaps there are a few souls right on the tip. But if so, it’s just us and them and all the other long-distance flying containers up here. We are tracing the outer edge of the human envelope. Below, six billion people inhale. Above, there’s nothing to breathe.

It’s at about this point, when I am too tired to read, I have consumed too much wine, and all I can do is stare, that the human condition starts to get to me. Half the plane is unconscious, the other half is gingerly stepping over them, and there is a permanent line to the toilets. In addition to this aerial trip, my boyfriend and I were embarking on a few heady metaphorical ones as well. We had met in England and were heading to Melbourne to meet my parents. Maybe at some point we would become parents too. It was momentous to contemplate, and it’s a truism that we didn’t know the half of it, but we didn’t even know what we didn’t know.

Here’s one thing I didn’t know when I was flying above the Indian Ocean. One of my great-great-grandfathers was called Michael Deegan, and 170 years before we got on our plane, he followed a similar trajectory, from high in the Northern Hemisphere to way down in the Southern. He was only fifteen years old and he crossed the oceans on a bark called the Kinnear. The trip took 105 days. The boat left Dublin with 174 men and arrived in Australia with 172. Deegan had left a country on the edge of a famine in which one million people died and two and a half million people fled within a ten-year period. He had stolen a handkerchief and was now a convict on his way to Van Diemen’s Land. Even if he survived his sentence, he was forbidden to return home. All the Kinnear’s passengers boarded as criminals, but many of them disembarked compliant. At the end of the journey, the ship’s surgeon entered a report on the character of each of the survivors: “good,” “orderly,” or even “very good.” Yet somehow Deegan remained “troublesome.”

In the twenty-first century we move through space in these high-speed vessels and through our lives inside little envelopes of time. Usually we know people from the generation or two that come before us, and probably the generation or two that come after, but mortality draws a thick line across the horizon ahead, and existence—or the lack of it—marks the line behind us. It’s not common in the West to have met, or even know much about, anyone born three generations before us. Do these people shape us anyway, whether we know about them or not?

· · ·

Humanity has been making some consequential moves for a long time now. Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, we populated Africa; then we left the continent in waves and spread across the world. The global travel that began more than sixty thousand years ago continued for the next forty-five thousand years before we settled every habitable continent on earth.

From the ninth century, when Vikings set out to sea in longboats, through the ages of expansion, slavery, the spice trade, and the colonialism that ended in the twentieth century, thousands of ships crossed the oceans. The vessels carried explorers, prisoners, slaves, and immigrants far away from the places where they were born, in most cases never to return. In the second half of the nineteenth century, now known as the age of mass migration, the movement peaked, with more than fifty-five million emigrants embarking from the Old World and heading to the Americas and Australia. On the human scale the ships marked crucial chapters in the lives of many individuals—and in the lives of everyone who descended from them. Culturally they changed the stories of families forever. Biologically the ships delivered mixed samples of human genomes. Everywhere they went they transformed the human landscape, releasing new variants into the local gene pool, creating never-before-seen mixes of human material, and founding novel lineages that branched and then branched again.

I wonder if my convict ancestor thought about whether he would have descendants who might one day look back on his life or who would know him only as a wisp in a cloud of long-dead family. He lived for many, many years after his terrible journey, and though he died long before I was born, I’ve spoken to people who have spoken to people who once spoke to him. Oh look, here comes the human condition again: He and I have physically touched people who have physically touched each other. But although we will never speak, and I will never see him or hear his voice, he is here with me, and not just in my thoughts. This isn’t a metaphor but a fact, as real as the Himalayas. There is information within me that came from him, and if my boyfriend and I have children, some of that information will be inside them too.

We are ourselves vessels. Inside each cell that is inside each person is a massive library of DNA, three billion base pairs that have been passed down to us. I think about this while I sit on the plane; the principle is true for all 466 of my fellow passengers, no matter what class they’re in or their reasons for travel. They all carry their great-great-grandparents inside, and they carry traces of their grandparents’ ancestors too. Here in this plane are multitudes, 1.4 trillion base pairs that have been passed down through history by millions of people. It’s a miracle we ever got off the ground.

· · ·

In second grade our teacher gave the class a project: We were to go home and interview our parents and then draw a family tree. That afternoon I explained the project to my parents. I would write my name and birth date, and then I would draw a branch growing up out of my name. At the end of that branch I would write their names and what they did for a living, and then I would add their parents’ names and birth dates, and I would then draw lines stretching up to them.

I had never before thought much about my forebears. My parents had told me that my father’s parents had died before I was born, and my mother’s parents lived in another country. And yet here, in the tree I was carefully drawing, I could see that these people had once existed, and they were connected to me.

If I was lucky, my teacher said, my parents would be able to name their grandparents—my great-grandparents—and say when they lived and what they did.

But I was not so lucky. It turned out that my parents were interested in the project, but they were upset about it too: Why is your teacher asking you these questions? This is homework? What business is it of hers?

In the end my parents made a few suggestions and, naturally, I wrote them down. They could have kept a lid on their ire and lied to me right then and there, but that wasn’t something they did, and they were too indignant to conceal it. So I learned early that the past can bother people in surprising ways and that memory is meaningful but odd. That incident gave rise to a lifelong interest in why family matters, how it shapes you, and especially why people who are long dead still matter so much to you, who are alive.

Pretty much everyone alive today has been asked some form of the question “Who are you?” and the ancient and universal impulse has been to respond by talking about our family. For many years I did a good job of squashing that ancient and universal impulse, studying biology and history in high school and starting a degree and acquiring all sorts of research skills. Occasionally I prodded my mother about my grandparents, but for the most part a thick mist hung in the part of my brain that stores all the questions about family and history and identity. That changed one day in 1990 when my parents and my four siblings were assembled in my parents’ kitchen, and my father announced that it was time to tell us that the man we thought was his father wasn’t actually his father. The man who raised him, who we thought was our long-dead grandfather, was actually our dad’s long-dead grandfather. Our father’s mother was our great-grandfather’s daughter.

For my father this was an awful admission. He had trouble speaking, and I can still see his crooked right arm and hand supporting his forehead. My mother had her hand on his shoulder, and we five children sat there watching. Their distress was extraordinary, yet none of us shared it, not then and not since. The world has galloped on since my father was born, and at least in our part of it, few people today are concerned with matters of paternity in the way they were in the 1930s. By some mysterious process, even though my conservative parents raised us to be like them, neither did we.

Which is not to say that we weren’t disoriented. A truth that none of us had questioned—what is reasonable to call a small foundation stone of our identity—had cracked. Humans tend not to act well when things like that happen, and I still cringe at my first response, which was to exclaim, “I knew there was something going on!” only to realize that my father, who never cried, was choking back tears.

What then? My father didn’t want to talk more about it. But I did: What was his name, this man, my actual paternal grandfather, and shouldn’t his last name be my last name? Who was he, anyway? Did my father look like him? Wait, did I? Like all normal children, I had spent a considerable amount of time imagining the sudden death of both my parents and my ensuing survival adventure. (My knapsack was packed and ready, just in case.) For half a minute the old daydream stirred, I was long lost to someone else, and here was a truly unknown unknown, a story that hadn’t been told.

But my father shut it down again. He had once heard a name, he said, but he had no documentary evidence to prove the connection, so he wouldn’t tell us what it was.

And that’s where I got stuck. When you put flesh and blood and information together, you are bound to get some heady mysteries and painful feelings, but what can you ever actually know?

· · ·

Our trip past the Himalayas turned out to be the first of many, and CB and I are now married and back in Melbourne, raising two young American Australians that we created from scratch.

This morning, a typical morning, begins in the kitchen in a house not too far from the one in which I grew up. But after breakfast we push the dishes to the other end of the table, and the four of us stare at a container full of salt water, a cold bottle of gin, and a four glasses with a nip of fluorescent green liquid in each. Although it looks as if we are about to make some cheerful cocktails, it is only 10:00 a.m., and our boys are just nine and six. Instead, we are going to extract some cells from our saliva, break them open, and tease the DNA out.

“DNA is—” I begin.

“I know what DNA is,” says my nine-year-old.

“Okay. What is it?”

“It’s this stuff in your body that goes around.” He draws a tight spiral in the air with his finger. “It basically introduces you and where you’re from. And it makes your blood type.”

I was going to crib Wikipedia, but this pretty much covers it. I didn’t learn about DNA until the last year of high school, when we dutifully ran through a few Mendelian tables, adding a dominant gene and a recessive gene or two recessives or two dominants. I enjoyed the neatness of the calculation, but I didn’t think much about it beyond that. Back then the word “gene” was barely part of society’s vocabulary, but that changed quickly. Starting in the 1990s, scientists and journalists began to announce with ever-growing frequency that the gene for some trait—intelligence, language, red hair, personality—had finally been found. Much has changed since those early days, but many of the ideas that were popularized then are still around in some form today:

  • Genes are the atoms of the biological universe.
  • Genes are Father Time, predestination, the hand of fate, the story of your life, inescapably inscribed on your cells.
  • But only sometimes.
  • The connection between a single gene and a single trait may be cleanly observable.
  • The connection between a single gene and a single trait may be murky and complicated.
  • The connection between many genes and a single trait may be observable and complicated.
  • A genetic mutation or a missing gene or an extra gene or a segment of DNA that doesn’t seem to make anything may still shape you.
  • Or it may do nothing at all.
  • Genomes are human bar codes, our ineluctable and most true identity.
  • You are so shockingly, so powerfully, so undeniably you that you can’t help leaving traces of yourself everywhere you go—a tiny hair, a single cell, a trace of saliva all may lead back to you.

In the late nineties there was even a brief but brightly flaring hope that soon we would all be able to replicate ourselves. Human cloning was a topic in almost every major magazine and newspaper, and at times it felt as if barely a week went by without an article about clones that was written in such urgent tones it seemed our exact replica was about to knock on the front door and demand the car keys. The ethics of cloning were debated endlessly, as were the best candidates for the procedure. In 1998, in a rarely granted interview with the hugely influential software designer and business mogul Bill Gates, Barbara Walters, one of America’s most well-known journalists, challenged the billionaire about Microsoft’s influence on the world and Gates’s personal influence on his company. And then, in a question that must have felt a lot more piercing and relevant at the time, she probed, “Would you want to be cloned?” Wisely, Gates answered that he would not.

As of 2014 there are still no artificially produced human clones, at least none that we know of, and journalists have long since stopped asking people if they want to be cloned. Many well-known animal clones, like Dolly the sheep and the resurrected “extinct” ibex, have died (some prematurely, some horribly). Other cloned animals, like Copycat, the world’s first cloned pet (born in 2001), are doing well. (The company that created Copycat, however, is no longer in existence.) In 2013, for the first time ever, a mouse was cloned from only a single drop of blood. In 2014 a Korean company called Sooam Biotech announced the birth of a dachshund clone called Mini Winnie, which it had created for a British woman who won a competition.

If our turn-of-the-century con...

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