All species are unique and special. Our uniquely evolved intelligence has pushed us as a species to rely on technology – something unique to human evolution. We do many things because we are the original architects behind science, engineering, and culture. From these developments, we have discovered the study of genetics, a process in which we can better understand where humans came from as a species. Genetics can help educate the connection between different peoples and give historians and anthropologists information to paint a clearer picture of the history of humans, our history.
In “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived,” by Adam Rutherford, genetics is used to dismiss and explain some of the most important events and evolutions in our very brief history on this planet. He explains how genetics may very well show that people are different according to geography and culture, however, they do not set our course for the future. Our genes do not tell us our destiny; they will not tell you whether you will be smart or dumb, gay or straight, conservative or communist, etc. However, they can recount a very detailed history about who you are and how you have evolved to be who you are today. In its connection to history, Rutherford explains that history is the stuff we have recorded. We, as a species, have painted, carved, written, and spoken the stories of our pasts and present in an attempt to communicate and understand the increasingly complex world we live in. Until recently, our ‘documented’ history was recorded primarily in religious texts, business transaction documents, and the documentation of royal lineages.
Now, with the integration of genomics and history, we can piece together information from the genes of our ancestors. Primarily focusing on the European genomic evolution, Rutherford begins with the beginning: the adaptation of the Homo Erectus from a nomadic species to a sedentary one. The agricultural revolution is well documented within our genes: the complex change in the expansion of genes certifies our bodies adapting to the climate and food chain sources available. This transition to farming changed everything as it spurred humans towards a transition to domestic life and created one of the most dominant businesses of humans for most of the rest of history. An example of its effect is the presence of cooked food and the expansion of the human brain during Paleolithic times. This adaptation reflects how culture affects our genes, as our bodies adapt to make room for different genes.
He supports these facts by detailing the multiplication of the genes that encode salivary amylase, which in turn helped humans digest more complex molecules such as starches and carbohydrate-rich foods – food that provides the energy for evolving a highly energetic brain. Another evolution in our diet from later in history is the mutation of the enzyme called lactase encoded within our genes. This allows us to drink milk as babies, but significantly diminishes as we are weaned from our mothers. As adults, dairy causes many digestive problems for adults, that is, except for many Eastern Europeans. Because of the emergence of the farming of cattle and dairy cultivation in Eastern Europe, primarily Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, and Poland, genes were able to mutate in order to make up for the discrepancy in diet choice. However, it is not just our diet that the mutations in genes affect.
The evolution of our species into farmers has brought with it many consequences. Rutherford explains that the population of Europe has fluctuated since the introduction of farming in a boom and bust cycle. One of these busts is significant because of its relation to the genes that reveal plague pathogens were present. Plague is perhaps the deadliest bacteria known to the history of mankind and its effects still haunt us today. Its role in helping shape Europe by crippling armies and toppling empires can be reduced to being described as simply a result of the indifference of natural selection. The pathogen present in the plague relies on attacking a specific range of genes – making it more deadly in some people rather than others. This natural selection process is a process that we brought upon ourselves. By farming, trade, and prosperity, we cultivated grain, and where there is grain, there are rats, and where there are rats there are fleas. We unknowingly brought upon one of the deadliest forms of disease to eradicate the majority of populations simply by evolving. Another fact that Rutherford aims hard to dismiss is the controversial subject of race. The idea that people are different from each other, and the weight of those differences is something that has caused some of the deepest divisions and cruelest, bloodiest acts in history. With increasing information, we are seeing how genetics makes a mockery of race. Homo Sapiens, our predecessors, originate from Africa, where they have lives for as much as 300,000 years.
The few hundred that migrated out of Africa carried a fraction of those genes, after which mutation and selection developed the differences that we see today, primarily superficial: varying facial features, fair texture, body proportions, eye colour, and skin pigmentation. Genetically, these differences have no scientific validity. Race is a myth. Every person on Earth, no matter where they live, what language they speak, or what skin colour they have, is related by descent from a small pool of ancestors just a few thousand years ago. However, it is the concept of race based upon looks that has caused the most disparity between cultures. Somewhere in history, Europeans developed the notion that skin pigmentation is the ultimate factor deciding social class. The ultimate irony is, however, as Rutherford states, that the “science of genetics was founded specifically on the study of racial inequality, by a racist” (219). The very ideas that we now find toxic: racism, empire, prejudice, and eugenics are founded upon ideas of race. Throughout history, the toxic legacy of colonialism has made possible for prejudice to have an effect upon cultures that do not originate from primarily European descent. For example, eugenics is the forced, involuntary, and often secret sterilization of undesirables. Its history is lengthy and still being pieced together. We know its most famous representation during the twentieth century, via the Holocaust.
The Nazis slaughtered millions of people on the notion that they had ‘unfavourable’ traits that would taint their ideal Aryan race. This included not only those of Jewish descent, but homosexuals, Roma, Poles, and people with mental illness. Other popular representations of this discriminatory process are present in our country’s history. The long-persisting prejudice against Native Americans riddles Canadian history. Perhaps the most important link to genetic discrimination is the idea that Native Americans are genetically predisposed to alcoholism. Addiction is a complex problem to understand as there are biological, social, and cultural factors to consider, including poverty, education, family history, and trauma experienced during childhood. The evidence from history to support the brutal social and cultural experience for many Native Americans from generations of oppression all point towards risk factors for alcoholism. In fact, we all have the genetic predisposition for addiction because evolution requires our species to follow what we like, for example, food. Yet, the notion that alcoholism in the genetics of Native Americans is relevant to their current socioeconomic status remains constantly repeated. Rutherford delivers a fascinating poetic history. In depicting the evolution of our species and the mutation of genes he clears away some of the most unfathomable genetic ideas that amount to questionable science. While there remain no written records of the most important developments in our history, namely the transition from hunting and gathering to farming, the initial colonization of regions outside of Africa, and the appearance of modern humans, the genomics of our species is building up the most detailed prehistory that we can or have ever known. Dispelling notions of race, he states on multiple occasions that every human being on this planet in inextricably linked by royal lineage.
Everyone is no matter what your culture because we all come from the same origin. If you go back far enough in your own family tree, the number of you first ancestors would ultimately be two, the same as everyone else on this earth. I personally think this book offers relevant ideas to reflect upon when thinking about our past as a species and the record of history. The deep-set prejudices and racism present in our shady past are dismissed when you take into consideration our origins. Therefore, after reading this book and its connections to the science of genetics in relation to history, it is a powerful way to answer some compelling questions about our past in a very unbiased way. In its relation to history, Rutherford’s ability to link famous individuals from the past to some of the most important genetic innovations is key in dispelling the very questionable actions that arise amidst colonialism and empire. I think that understanding this is key to building upon learning how to move past our unfortunate discriminatory histories. We are all complicit in forging a future in which race is not a thing. We are all the product of a tangled web of genetic relationships and thus none of us have the right to claim superiority over one another – a very notion that continues to cause political difficulties in our modern world. To understand genomes roles in our evolutionary past is to understand how we have come to be the species we are today and all that encompasses it.