Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Invisible History of the Human Race - Christine Kenneally

sub-title: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures

This is a hard book to describe.  It uses current DNA research to explain how the human race has evolved and how our understanding of this evolution affects our thinking and living.

I noted the following passages while reading the book over several weeks:

[Explaining why people pursue genealogy] "It's a feeling of breaking though a wall.  Of the frustration of wanting to know more about your family and your past and what people's lives were like, and where they came from, and who they were, and what their personal stories were, and feeling like you're never going to be able to uncover that.  Once you have that feeling of that great mystery, any piece of information feels like a treasure trove.'s a form of connection that you though you were never going to have."

I can relate to that quote.  There's just something about connecting with my past and the people who's genes I share that is fascinating and satisfying and deepens my understanding of who I am.

[About a study that asked people to estimate how much they would change in the future]  "People have a tendency to think of the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives...dubbed the phenomenon the 'end of history illusion'.  History is always ending today."

I don't know that I agree with that statement.  If anything, I think I can always change (for the better) in the future.

[In a discussion about a study on Western values] "Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic nations (WEIRD)"

"It also made me wonder how silence is passed down".  I liked this statement.  Secrets and not-saying can also be passed down in families.

[On a Emory University study exploring the value of family history in the lives of children] "...knowledge of family history appeared to indicate how resilient the children usually means that they have strong connections with mothers and grandmothers...the stories of a family add up to ... an intergenerational self."

To me, that statement makes the case for sharing family stories early and often.

"It is said that autosomal DNA [the kind Ancestry analysis uses] can take you back at least five generations.  The probability of identifying a third cousin using autosomal DNA is roughly 90 percent, a fourth cousin 50 percent, and a fifth cousin 10 percent."

The author talks about the analysis done in 2011 and 2012 by Eran Elhaik who collected historical data from DNA samples.  He now works at the University of Sheffiled and the company Prosapia Genetics has been created based on his analyses.  Prosapia claims to pinpoint the village where your ancestors came from 1,000 of years ago.  There is much controversy about its results and testing.

Another observation of the author's I liked is that DNA is a palimpsest, i.e., a layering of information on top of one another, as in medieval vellum.  " stories are layered over old ones, and we can learn more by understanding when and how they were written over one another.  DNA and our life experiences make our bodies palimpsests.  As we learn how to interpret the body in the context of its genetic code, we begin to understand how the hand of fate, the choices of families, and the enormous journey of DNA through deep time affect our lives right now."

Her closing thought is "Your genome is just the first hand that life deals you.  How you play it is up to you."

It was an eclectic mix of different disciplines and the application of DNA information.

Published:  2014  Read: July 2015  Genre: Science History

ISBN: 9 780670025558

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