Thursday, 15 September 2016

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived - Adam Rutherford *****

Science books can sometimes be rather stuffy or prissy - but no one can accuse Adam Rutherford of this. In his exploration of 'the stories in our genes' that word stories is foremost - and Rutherford proves himself time and again to be an accomplished storyteller. His style is sometimes extremely colloquial (and very British) - so at one point, when referring to the way some people react to the smell of a particular steroid he says 'to many it honks like stale urine' and rather than say 'what really interests me' he is likely to remark 'what turns me on'. 

I love the many meanders that Rutherford takes along the way, whether it's the horrendously inbred family tree of the Hapsburgs resulting in the sad case of Charles II, or the unique genetic laboratory provided by the small and relatively isolated population of Iceland. Rutherford is at his best when exploring an apparently trivial but genuinely interesting topic like variations in earwax type. This is dependent on a single gene and his exploration of its distribution across the world is delightful. This kind of material brings a lot of QI appeal to the book.

Though there is coverage of that 'everyone who every lived', for the UK reader there is lots specific to our origins and how groupings we tend to make don't necessarily make any sense genetically. For instance, Rutherford points out that Scottish Celts are more different from Welsh Celts than either are from the English. There's also plenty of delving into the past, from the latest version of Out of Africa to our relationship (literally) with Neanderthals. 

Darwin, as you might imagine, features quite a lot. I'd say that Rutherford rather overdoes the Darwin fandom, calling him 'the greatest of all scientists across all disciplines.' I certainly don't want to do Darwin down, as he certainly made a great contribution, but as the work of Wallace and others show, his ideas were very much in the air, so if you really want to make the invidious comparison of scientists this way I'd be inclined to say someone like Einstein, who with general relativity came up with something that really came out of the blue, probably should be ranked higher.

What begins with a genetic exploration of early humans takes us into all kinds of genetic adventures (including a section where Rutherford crushes a pathetic attempt to identify Jack the Ripper that was scientifically full of holes).  While I'd recommend reading Henry Gee's The Accidental Species as well for more of the paleontology of early humans, and the evolutionary considerations of our ending up the way we have, Rutherford makes humankind's genetic origins and identity his own. 

Mostly the book is hard to fault. Sometimes it felt just a bit too unstructured - jumping all over the place in the manner of an over-excited mountain goat. And the final two main chapters lacked some of the engagement of the others. There was a fascinating section on the worrying legal cases where the defence has been ‘my genes made me do it’, but that apart, there’s an awful lot at the specific gene level, whether it’s the ins and outs of the Human Genome Project or the relationship of genes and diseases, and after a while, to the non-biologist, this got a bit samey. 

Having said that, it’s hard to see how Rutherford could have written the book without these chapters and overall it’s a magnificent achievement, a big, friendly bear of a book that pummels the reader with delightful stories and no doubt would buy you a drink if it could. I can’t help but wonder if the cover was deliberately designed to pick up DNA - it has become far more marked than any book I can ever remember reading - if it was, it wouldn’t surprise me because Rutherford fills his book with clever little detail like this. Either way, it’s a fantastic popular science read.

Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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