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A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes

4/5 (27 ratings)
608 pages
9 hours
Sep 25, 2017

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Editor's Note

Wondering about your roots?…

Ever ordered a DNA test? Surely you’ve at least contemplated ordering one? If so, you should read this book. Go beyond personal ancestry by understanding the limitations and ever-growing applications of genetics with this jargon-free deep dive into the history of humanity.


National Book Critics Circle Award—2017 Nonfiction Finalist

“Nothing less than a tour de force—a heady amalgam of science, history, a little bit of anthropology and plenty of nuanced, captivating storytelling.”—The New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice

A National Geographic Best Book of 2017

In our unique genomes, every one of us carries the story of our species—births, deaths, disease, war, famine, migration, and a lot of sex. But those stories have always been locked away—until now. Who are our ancestors? Where did they come from? Geneticists have suddenly become historians, and the hard evidence in our DNA has blown the lid off what we thought we knew. Acclaimed science writer Adam Rutherford explains exactly how genomics is completely rewriting the human story—from 100,000 years ago to the present.
Sep 25, 2017

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About the author

Adam Rutherford is a geneticist, science writer, and broadcaster. He studied genetics at University College London, and during his PhD on the developing eye, he was part of a team that identified the first known genetic cause of a form of childhood blindness. As well as writing for the science pages of The Guardian, he has written and presented many award-winning series and programs for the BBC, including the flagship weekly Radio 4 program Inside Science, The Cell for BBC Four, and Playing God (on the rise of synthetic biology) for the leading science series Horizon. He is also the author of How to Argue With a Racist, an incisive guide to what modern genetics can and can’t tell us about human difference; The Book of Humans, a new evolutionary history that explores the profound paradox of the “human animal”; A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction; and Creation, on the origin of life and synthetic biology, which was short-listed for the Wellcome Book Prize.

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A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived - Adam Rutherford


A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived

National Book Critics Circle Award Nonfiction Finalist (2017)

A National Geographic Best Book of the Year (2017)

Foreword INDIES GOLD Winner (2017)

Nothing less than a tour de force—a heady amalgam of science, history, a little bit of anthropology and plenty of nuanced, captivating storytelling.

The New York Times Book Review, Editors’ Choice

A family portrait for all humanity . . . This enjoyable book has a great deal to say about our genetic code—or, more precisely, about how our knowledge of genetics is misused and misconstrued. . . . [Rutherford] proves an enthusiastic guide and a good storyteller.—The Wall Street Journal

Rutherford unpeels the science with elegance.—Nature

A captivating delight. [Rutherford] does more than any author to cut through the confusion around genetics, and to reveal what modern genetics has to say about our identity, history, and future.

—Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes

A brilliant, authoritative, surprising, captivating introduction to human genetics. If you know little about the human story, you will be spellbound. If you know a lot about the human story, you’ll be spellbound. It’s that good.

—Brian Cox, author of Why Does E = mc²?

A revelatory and important exploration into the ties that bind us—all seven billion of us—together. I really was enthralled.

—Sunjeev Sahota, author of The Year of the Runaways

Genetics is opening up the past as never before—Adam Rutherford puts the genes in genealogy brilliantly.—Matt Ridley, author of Genome

Rutherford raises significant questions and explains complex topics well, engaging readers with humor and smooth prose.

—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"A shining example of science writing at its best . . . will change the

way you think about human evolution."—Newsday

A thoroughly entertaining history of Homo sapiens and its DNA in a manner that displays popular science writing at its best.—Observer

One of those rare books that you’ll finish thinking you haven’t wasted a single second.—Independent

One of my big obsessions as a reporter is our expanding understanding of our genetic history, thanks to incredible advances like sequencing Neanderthal genomes. Rutherford, a British geneticist and journalist, presents a great survey of this fast-moving field.

—Carl Zimmer, author of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh

Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is the book we need.

—PZ Myers, author of The Happy Atheist

[Rutherford’s] head-on, humane approach to such charged and misunderstood topics as intelligence and race make this an indispensable contribution to the popular science genre.—Apple iBooks, Best Book of the Month

Provides a good survey of the science of genomics and how it’s changing the story of human evolution.—Forbes

An enthusiastic history of mankind in which DNA plays a far greater role than the traditional ‘bones and stones’ approach, followed by a hopeful if cautionary account of what the recent revolution in genomics foretells . . . Often quirky but thoughtful—solid popular science.—Kirkus

Equal parts informative, engaging, and frequently surprising—a must-read for fans of big-picture popular science.—Jennifer Ouellette, author of Me, Myself, and Why

Rutherford manages to reveal fresh (and controversial) assessments of human history and dispel long-held beliefs with clarity, enthusiasm and humor.—Shelf Awareness

A rollercoaster tour of human history and evolution . . . Rutherford is a bold, confident storyteller.—Genome

Magisterial, informative, and delightful.

—Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads

Rutherford is a gifted storyteller; he interweaves layperson’s genetics with the personal histories of scientists, explorers, and historical figures to create an extraordinarily readable book.—Choice

Challenging the simplistic thinking bolstered by the media, Rutherford adds both nuance and the thrill of excitement to viewing our species through a wider, stronger lens that can now see deep into our past.

—Amazon Book Review, Best Book of 2017

By turns amusing and provocative, this book, which may bruise the egos of a few genealogists, will appeal to both popular and technical science readers.—Library Journal

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.—Brian Clegg, Popular Science Book Reviews

Wide-ranging, witty, full of surprises, and studded with sparkling insights.—Alice Roberts, author of The Complete Human Body

A sweeping new view of the human evolution story, using the latest science of DNA as the central guide. . . . Recommended.—Scientific American

An effervescent work, brimming with tales and confounding ideas carried in the ‘epic poem in our cells.’—Guardian

"DNA is fragile, confusing and contains a lot of pointless data. But

unlike other accounts of human history it doesn’t lie. Adam Rutherford’s soaring book is an exposition of what this new science really tells us about who we are."—The Times

Rutherford’s book is well-written, stimulating, and entertaining. What’s more important, he consistently gets it right.—Richard Dawkins



The Book of Humans

I was tutored and schooled by Professor Steve Jones, at University College London and beyond. On the first day of his undergraduate genetics course in 1994, he offered to compensate any of us impoverished students the profit if we bought a copy of his masterpiece The Language of the Genes. I claimed that 55 pence. Over the years he has influenced me intellectually perhaps more than anyone else, and in many ways, this book is, with his permission, a continuation of that classic. In 2012, when I was invited to give a prestigious lecture for the British Humanist Association, Steve introduced me. He joked, I hope, that he had a strong sense that I was waiting for him to die so I could truly inherit his living. Because he’s still not dead, and for the 55 pence, I dedicate this book to





Foreword by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Author’s note


Part One: How We Came to Be

1. Horny and mobile

2. The first European union

3. These American lands

4. When we were kings

Part Two: Who We Are Now

5. The end of race

6. The most wondrous map ever produced by humankind

7. Fate

8. A short introduction to the future of humankind




References and further reading

Text and image credits

Interview with the Author


About the Author

Excerpt from How to Argue With a Racist




Foreword by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Author’s note


Part One: How We Came to Be

1. Horny and mobile

2. The First European Union

3. These American Lands

4. When We Were Kings

Part Two: Who We Are Now

5. The End of Race

6. The Most Wondrous Map Ever Produced by Humankind

7. Fate

8. A Short Introduction to the Future of Humankind




References and Further Reading

Text and Image Credits


About the Author

Interview with the Author


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

How to Argue With a Racist Excerpt







It is humbling to introduce the North American edition of Adam Rutherford’s monumental A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived. Ambitious, wide-ranging, and deeply researched, Rutherford’s book sets out to describe the history of the human species—from our origins as a slight, sly, naked, apelike creature somewhere in Africa to our gradual spread across the globe and our dominion over the planet. In academic circles, it is becoming fashionable to use the word anthropocene to describe the current epoch, when humans have begun to have significant effect on the earth and the environment. We have, in short, reshaped the world that we live in, but Rutherford turns our attention to a somewhat different, if equally essential, question: How did the world—biology, environment, culture—shape us?

The key idea that Rutherford unveils in this riveting volume is that human genomics—the study of our DNA—is radically altering our understanding of our own past. Traditionally, we have investigated questions of human origin by studying biological and cultural artifacts—skeletons, tools, architectural remains, books, stories, language, rituals. But the genome, Rutherford argues, is also an artifact: It stores powerful information about heritage, enabling scientists to reconstruct human origin based on that information alone. Did the first settlers in North America arrive across the Bering Strait several thousand years ago? Where and when did Homo sapiens coexist and interbreed with Neanderthals? How old are we as a species, and how, exactly, do we define where we were born? The study of human DNA is unveiling astonishingly novel insights into such questions, Rutherford writes. Indeed, one of the most surprising features of the genetic investigation of human history (as opposed to more traditional means of approaching the question) is the number of myths and fallacies that human genomics has already overturned, and how much of what seemed known and well established is, in fact, unknown and steeped in ambiguity.

In this edition, Rutherford tackles a few thorny concerns that are particularly relevant to our side of the world. Our attempt to reconstruct the early history of human settlement in North America has been dramatically reshaped by modern genomics. By studying genes, we might be able to understand the migration patterns of humans across this continent, decipher the lineal relationships between tribes, and even track the first genetic intersections between Native Americans and European settlers. But this knowledge has not been easy to come by, Rutherford argues. We know much less about American history than we could know because of the unique manner in which the United States developed. The profound failures in the relationships between Native Americans and European settlers—failures driven, in large part, by the toxic legacy of colonialism—have made it impossible, at times, to answer some of the fundamental questions about the origins of humans in the Americas. It is a strange shame that our cultural history has made it monumentally difficult to unearth our biological and anthropological history.

Rutherford is hopeful that this shadow of suspicion and distrust will finally ease, enabling scientists to be able to train the ever-expanding—and ever-more-acute—lenses of genome technologies on the history of the Americas. The capacity to sequence, analyze, and store vast troves of genetic information has made it possible, in principle, to answer deep questions about American history. The reconstruction of ancestry—previously a parlor game that could only be played by the ultrarich—is being popularized and commercialized: With a cheek swab, a drop of saliva, and a few hundred dollars (as the infomercials on TV and the web exhort us), we can now easily obtain information about our individual heritage. But the reconstruction of our national past is unlikely to be easy, he writes. To make inroads into this uncharted continent of genomics, we must first tackle the legacy of European colonialism with caution, openness, and fortitude. This kind of wisdom—rarely to be found in academic textbooks of genetics—catapults Rutherford’s book beyond the realm of popular science writing into the domains of philosophy, history of science, and cultural studies.

The study of DNA—the molecule that stores information about heritage—is a rather modern idea. (Indeed, we did not know that DNA was the carrier of genetic information until the 1950s. The elegant double-helix structure of the most beautiful molecule in biology was solved just sixty-four years ago, and the genetic code was only deciphered in the early ’60s.) But the desire to understand heritage, Rutherford reminds us, is an ancient desire—and twisted into that desire are our concerns about identity and relationships, and our sense of self. As Rutherford concludes, we cannot investigate heritage simply by studying DNA; we also need to understand the social and political history of heritage. In this endlessly intriguing book, we are thus not just presented with the mini-history of the human genome, but also with a sweeping history of our attempt to grapple with the human genome.


June 2017

SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE is the author of The Gene and the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Emperor of All Maladies.


Science demands collaboration. There are no lone geniuses, never evil geniuses, and very rarely any heretical geniuses. Almost all science is done by very normal people working in teams or in cahoots with others in similar or dissimilar fields, and they build knowledge on the shoulders of historical and contemporary giants, as Isaac Newton once suggested, parroting the words of the eleventh-century philosopher Bernard of Chartres, who was referencing the Greek myth of the temporarily blinded hunter Orion, who saw further by sitting a dwarf on his shoulders.

The science in this book is perhaps more collaborative than most, as it involves the introduction of a new discipline, genomics, into older ones, namely history, archaeology, paleoanthropology, medicine, and psychology. Author lists of genetics papers can now run into the dozens, hundreds, and occasionally thousands. Long gone are the days when Victorian gentlemen could idle away their inheritances in hot pursuit of the fabric of nature.

Many people have helped me with the writing of this book, and I have used numerous research papers, which are listed at the back. For the most part, though, I have not included specific references in the text, nor individual researchers, simply to add to the flow of the stories herein. A large number of the studies involve Mark Thomas at University College London, and I am very grateful for his guidance and friendship over the years. The particular field of ancient DNA is led by a few labs currently, though it is spreading at a feverish pace as the techniques become better and easier to deploy, and as more and more data is accrued. Several of these tales are drawn from the work of Svante Pääbo, Turi King and the Richard III project, Joe Pickrell, David Reich, Josh Akey, Joachim Burger, Graham Coop, Johannes Krause, and a few others, who have all helped me directly or indirectly. The work is theirs; any errors are mine. There is a glossary of some of the technical or less than friendly terms that geneticists use.


In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches . . . Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.

Chapter 14: Recapitulation and Conclusion in On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, 1859

This is a story about you. It concerns the tale of who you are and how you came to be. It is your individual story, because the journey of life that alights at your existence is unique, as it is for every person who has ever drawn breath. And it’s also our collective story, because as an ambassador for the whole of our species, you are both typical and exceptional. Despite our differences, all humans are remarkably close relatives, and our family tree is pollarded, and tortuous, and not in the slightest bit like a tree. But we are the fruit thereof.

Something on the order of 107 billion modern humans have existed, though this number depends on when exactly you start counting. All of them—of us—are close cousins, because our species has a single African origin. We don’t quite have the language to describe what that really means. It doesn’t, for example, mean a single couple, a hypothetical Adam and Eve. We think of families and pedigrees and genealogies and ancestry, and we try to think of the deep past in the same way. Who were my ancestors? You might have a simple, traditional family structure or, one like mine, handsomely untidy, its tendrils jumbled like old wires in a drawer. But no matter which, everyone’s past becomes muddled sooner or later.

We all have two parents, and they had two parents, and all of them had two parents, and so on. Keep going like this all the way back to the last time England was invaded, and you’ll see that doubling each generation results in more people than have ever lived, by many billions. The truth is that our pedigrees fold in on themselves, the branches loop back and become nets, and all of us who have ever lived have done so enmeshed in a web of ancestry. We only have to go back a few dozen centuries to see that most of the 7 billion of us alive today are descended from a tiny handful of people, the population of a village.

History is the stuff that we have recorded. For thousands of years, we have painted, carved, written, and spoken the stories of our pasts and presents, in attempts to understand who we are and how we came to be. By consensus, history begins with writing. Before that we have prehistory—the stuff that happened before we wrote it down. For the sake of perspective, life has existed on Earth for about 3.9 billion years. The species Homo sapiens, of which you are a member, emerged a mere 300,000 years ago, as far as we know, in pockets in the east and north of Africa. Writing began about 6,000 years ago, in Mesopotamia, somewhere in what we now call the Middle East.

For comparison, the book you are holding is around 115,000 words, or 685,000 characters long, including spaces. If the length of time life has existed on Earth were represented as this book, each character, including spaces, is around 5,957 years. Anatomically modern humans’ tenure on Earth is equivalent to

. . . the precise length of this phrase.

The time we have been recording history is an evolutionary wing-flap equivalent to a single character, the width of this period<.>

And how sparse that history is! Documents vanish, dissolve, decompose. They are washed away by the weather, or consumed by insects and bacteria, or destroyed, hidden, obfuscated, or revised. That is before we address the subjectivity of the historical record. We can’t agree definitively on what happened in the last decade. Newspapers record stories with biases firmly in place. Cameras record images curated by people and only see what passes through the lens, frequently without context. Humans themselves are terribly unreliable witnesses to objective reality. We fumble.

The precise details of the events of September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center towers were destroyed, may well remain obscure because of conflicting reports and the chaos of those horrors. Witness testimonies in courts are notoriously defective and are always subject to squint-eye scrutiny. Flit back a few centuries, and there is no contemporary evidence even for the existence of Jesus Christ, arguably the most influential man in history. Most of our tales about his life were written in the decades after his death by people who had never met him. Today, we would seriously question that, if it were presented as historical evidence. Even the accounts that Christians rely on, the Gospels, are inconsistent and have irreversibly mutated over time.

This is not to disparage the study of history (nor Christianity). It’s merely a comment on how the past is foggy. Until recently it was recorded primarily in religious texts, business transaction documents, and the papers of royal lineages. In modern times we have the opposite problem—far too much information and almost no way to curate it. In every purchase you make online, every Internet search you do, you volunteer information about yourself to be captured by companies in the ether. Books, sagas, oral histories, inscriptions, archaeology, the Internet, databases, film, radio, hard drives, tape. We piece together these bits and bytes of information to reconstruct the past. And now, biology has become part of that formidable swill of information.

The epigraph at the beginning of this introduction is Darwin’s single reference to humans in On the Origin of Species, right at the end, as if to tease us that there will be a sequel. With his proposed theory of descent with modification in the distant future, light will be shed on our own story: to be continued.

That time has come. There is now another way to read our pasts, and floodlights are being shone on our origins. You carry an epic poem in your cells. It’s an incomparable, sprawling, unique, meandering saga. About a decade ago, fifty years after the discovery of the double helix, our ability to read DNA had improved to the degree that it was transformed into a historical source, a text to pore over. Our genomes, genes, and DNA house a record of the journey that life on Earth has taken—4 billion years of error and trial that resulted in you. Your genome is the totality of your DNA, 3 billion letters of it, and due to the way it comes together—by the mysterious (from a biological point of view) business of sex—it is unique to you. Not only is this genetic fingerprint yours alone, it’s unlike any other of the 107 billion people who have ever lived. That applies even if you are an identical twin, whose genomes begin their existence indistinguishable, but inch away from each other moments after conception. In the words of Dr. Seuss:

Today you are you! That is truer than true!

There is no one alive who is you-er than you!

The sperm that made you started its life in your father’s testicles within a few days before your conception. One single sperm out of a spurt of billions ground its head against your mother’s egg, one of just a few hundred. Like a Russian doll, that egg had grown in her when she was growing inside her mother, but it matured within the last menstrual cycle and, taking its turn from alternating ovaries, eased its way out of the comfort of its birthplace. On contact, that winning sperm released a chemical that dissolved the egg’s reluctant membrane, left its whiplash tail behind, and burrowed in. Once inside, the egg set an impenetrable fence that stopped any others breaching her defenses. The sperm was unique, as was the egg, and the combination of the two, well, that was unique too, and that became you. Even the point of entry was unique. Your mother’s egg being roughly spherical, that sperm could’ve punched its way in anywhere, and at the behest of cosmic happenstance, it penetrated its quarry at a singular point, a point that set waves of chemicals and effectively began the process of setting your body plan—head at one end, tail at the other. In other organisms, we know that if the winning sperm had come in on the other side, the embryo that became you would’ve started growing in a different orientation, and it may well be the same in us.

Your parents’ genetic material, their genome, had been shuffled in the formation of sperm and egg, and halved. Their parents, your grandparents, had provided them with two sets of chromosomes, and the shuffle mixed them up to produce a deck that had never existed before, and never will again. They also bestowed upon you just a bit of unshuffled DNA. If you’re a man, you have a Y chromosome that was largely unchanged from your father and from his father and so on back through time. It’s a stunted shriveled piece of DNA, with only a few genes on it and a lot of debris. The egg also had some small loops of DNA hiding inside, in its mitochondria, tiny powerhouses that provide power for all cells. It has its own mini genome, and because it sits inside the egg, this only comes from mothers. Together, these two make up a tiny proportion of your total DNA, but their clear lineages have some use when tracking back through genealogies and ancient history. However, the vast majority of your DNA was forged in the shuffle of your parents’, and theirs in theirs. That process happened every time a human lived; the chain that precedes you is unbroken.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

I offer no comment on the psychological or parental aspects of Philip Larkin’s poem, but from a biological point of view, it’s spot on. Each time an egg or sperm is made, the shuffle produces new variation, unique differences in the people that host them. You’ll inherit your parents’ DNA in unique combinations, and in that process—meiosis—you also will have invented some brand new genetic variations, just for you. Some of those will get passed on if you have children, and they will acquire their own as well.

It’s upon these differences in populations that evolution can act, and it’s in these differences that we can follow the path of humankind, as we have roamed across land and oceans, and oceans of time, into every corner of the planet. Geneticists have suddenly become historians.

A single genome contains a huge amount of uncurated data, enough to lay out plans for a human. But genomics is a comparative science. Two sets of DNA from different people contain much more than double that information. All human genomes host the same genes, but they all may be slightly different, which accounts for the fact that we are all incredibly similar, and utterly unique. By comparing those differences we can make inferences about how closely related those two people are, and when those differences evolved. We can now extend these comparisons to all humanity, as long as we can pull DNA from your cells.

When the first complete human genome was published in 2001 to great fanfare, it was in fact a sketchy draft readout of most of the genetic material of just a few of us. To get this far had taken hundreds of scientists the best part of a decade, and had cost on the order of $3 billion, approximately $1 per letter of DNA. Just fifteen years later, things are emphatically easier, and the amount of data from individual genomes now is incalculable. As I write these words we have approximately 150,000 fully sequenced human genomes, and useful samplings from literally millions of people, from all over the world. Grand medical endeavors with accurate names like The Hundred Thousand Genome Project typify how easily we can now extract the data that we all store in our living cells. Here in the UK, we are seriously considering sequencing genomes of everyone at birth. And it’s not limited to the rigor of formal science or governmental medical policy: You can spit in a test tube and get a read-out of key parts of your own genome from an armada of companies that will tell you all sorts of things about your characteristics, history, and risk of some diseases, for just a couple of hundred dollars.

We now have genomes of hundreds of long dead people too to slot into this grand narrative. The bones of an English king, Richard III, were identified in 2014 with a raft of archaeological evidence (Chapter 4), but the deal was royally sealed with his DNA. The kings and queens of the past are known to us because of their status, and because history is dominated by telling and retelling their stories. While genetics has enriched the study of monarchs, DNA is the ultimate leveler, and our newfound ability to extract the finest details of the living past has rendered this an examination of the people, of countries, of migration, of everyone. We can test, and verify or falsify, and know the histories of the people, not just the powerful or the celebrities of their day. Nobodies from the past are being elevated to some of the most important people who ever lived. DNA is universal and, as we’ll find out, being in a royal lineage might afford you divine rights over citizens, and the spoils that go with inherited power, but evolution, genetics, and sex are largely indifferent to nationalities, borders, and all that heady power.

And we can look further still. The study of ancient humans was once limited to old teeth and bones and the ghostly traces of their lives left in dirt, but we can now piece together the genetic information of truly ancient humans, of Neanderthals and other extinct members of our extended family, and these people are revealing a new route to where we are today. We can pluck out their DNA to tell us things that could not be known in any other way—we can, for example, know how a Neanderthal person experienced smell.

Retrieved after epochs, DNA has profoundly revised our evolutionary story. The past may be a foreign country, but the maps were inside us the whole time.

The amount of data this new science is generating is colossal, phenomenal, overwhelming. Studies are being published every week that upend what has come before. In the penultimate stages of writing this book, the date of the great exodus from Africa may have shifted more than 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, following the discovery of forty-seven modern teeth in China. Then in the final stages it moved back by another 20,000 years with the detection of Homo sapiens DNA in a millennia-dead Neanderthal girl. These numbers are not much in evolutionary terms, ripples in geological time. But that is much more than the whole of written human history, and so the land continually and dramatically moves under our feet.

The first half of this book is about the rewriting of the past using genetics, from a time when there were at least four human species on Earth right up to the kings of Europe into the eighteenth century. The second half is about who we are today, and what the study of DNA in the twenty-first century says about families, health, psychology, race, and the fate of us. Both parts are drawn from using DNA as a text to sit alongside the historical sources we have relied on for centuries: archaeology, rocks, old bones, legends, chronicles, and family histories.

Although the study of ancestors and inheritance is as old as humans, genetics is a scientific field that is young, with a difficult short history. Human genetics was born as a means of measuring people, comparatively, such that the differences between them could be formalized as science, and used to justify segregation and subjugation. The birth of genetics is synonymous with the birth of eugenics, though at the time in the late nineteenth century, that word did not carry the same toxic meaning that it has now. There is no more controversial subject in all of science than race—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. As we will see, modern genetics has shown how we continue to get the whole concept of race so spectacularly wrong. Humans love telling stories. We’re a species that craves narrative, and more specifically, narrative satisfaction—explanation, a way of making sense of things, and the ineffable complexities of being human—beginnings, middles, and ends. When we started to read the genome, what we wanted to find there were narratives that tidied up the mysteries of history and culture and individual identity, that told us exactly who we were, and why.

Our wishes were not satisfied. The human genome turned out to be far more interesting and complicated than anyone anticipated, including all the geneticists who remain ever more gainfully employed a decade on from the so-called completion of the Human Genome Project. The truth of this complexity and our lack of understanding is struggling to filter down into what we talk about when we talk about genetics. We once spoke of blood and bloodlines as a means of tying us to our ancestors and describing our familial selves. It’s no longer in the blood, it is in our genes. DNA has become a byword for destiny, or a seam running through us that seals our fates. But it is not. All scientists think that their field is the one that is least well represented in the media, but I’m a scientist and a writer, and I believe that human genetics stands out above all as one destined to be misunderstood, I think because we are culturally programmed to misunderstand it.

Science is apt to reveal that much of the world is not how we perceive it, whether that is the cosmological, the molecular, the atomic, or the subatomic. These fields are distant or abstract compared with how we talk about families, about inheritance, about race, about intelligence, and about history. The baggage we carry, the subjectivity with which we naturally approach these quintessentially human characteristics is without equal. The gap between what science has revealed and how we talk about families and race is a chasm, because, as we shall see, things are not how we thought they were.

There’s plenty of fabrication and mythmaking born of DNA as well. Genetics can certainly tell us who our closest relatives really are, and can reveal so many mysteries of our deep past. But you have far less in common with your ancestors than you may realize, and there are people in your family from whom you have inherited no genes at all, and who therefore have no meaningful genetic link to you, even though in a genealogical sense you are most definitely descended from them. I will show you that despite what you might have read, genetics won’t tell you how smart your kids will be, or what sports they should play, or what gender person they might fancy, or how they will die, or why some people commit acts of heinous violence and murder. Just as important as what genetics can tell us is what it can’t.

Our DNA is the very thing that has encoded brains sophisticated enough to be capable of asking questions about our own origins, and providing the tools to figure out how our evolution has proceeded. Changes in this strange molecule have accumulated and been recorded over time, waiting patiently for millennia for us to discover how to read it. And now we can. Each chapter in this book tells a different story about history and about genetics, of battles lost and won, of invaders, marauders, murder, migration, agriculture, disease, kings and queens, plague, and plenty of deviant sex.

Above all, you are holding a history book. Some of the stories here are the history of genetics—with all its own convoluted twists and dark past—included to understand how we know what we now are discovering. Many of the stories are tales of nations, populations, a few known through celebrity or inheritance of power, but most are of the anonymous multitudes. We can pick through the bones of individual men, women, and children who through sheer chance died in uncommon circumstances, and turned out to be the people whose lives we would scrutinize forensically because in the preservation of their death they inadvertently gave up their DNA to us.

Biology is the study of what lives and therefore what dies. It’s messy—wonderfully, frustratingly so—and imprecise and defies definitions. If you want to start at the beginning, which might seem like a very good place to start, then here is where our troubles begin.


How We Came to Be


Horny and mobile

There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Vonnegut was half right. There is definitely no beginning, and if there is an end, it’s not in sight. We are always in the middle, and we are all missing links. Just like there was no absolute point when your life began, there was no moment of creation when our species began, no spark of life, no breath of God into the nostrils of an Adam molded in the red earth, no cracking of a cosmic egg. So it goes. Nothing living is fixed, and all creatures are four dimensional, existing in space, and also through time.

Life is transition: The only things that are truly static are already dead. Your parents had parents, and theirs had parents, and so on, two by two, back through the whole of history, and prehistory. If you keep going back and back, your ancestors will slowly and inevitably become unrecognizable to you, via apes and monkeys, two-legged then quadrupedal, and ratty mammals and brutish beasts on land, and before them in wading sea creatures and fishy swimmers, and worms and weedy sea plants, and around two billion years ago, you don’t even need two parents, but just the binary fission of a single cell, one becomes two. Eventually, at the beginning of life on Earth around 4 billion years ago, you’re locked in a rock at the bottom of the oceans, inside the hot bubbling tumult of a hydrothermal vent. This geologically slow, incremental change is like a color chart, where pixel-by-pixel white becomes black, whether it’s the gap from reptile to mammal, or from four-legged to upright. On occasion there will be a splash of color thrown into the mix, but for the most part, the pathway to your ancestors creeps rather than jerks,* and all of it gray in its depths.

Life on Earth has been continuous in that time, and we are a dot on that gray continuum. Conjure up that image of a hairy monkey-like ape on all fours, to the left of a crouching ape, to the left of a hunched stooping ape, to the left of an upright, modern bearded man-ape like us wielding a flint-tipped spear with his right leg cocked coyly forward to protect us from seeing his immodest instruments of biological transition. This iconic image implies something that we now know is untrue. We just don’t know the pathway of the apes that led to us. We know many of the creatures en route, but the map is full of gaps and smears. The second untruth is that there is a direction to our evolution, to our bipedal gait, and our big beefy brains, and our tools and culture. With that arrow we are to infer progress, from simplicity to an inescapable advance into the erect future, an inevitable cognitive revolution of the mind.

Alas, we are no more or less evolved than any creature. Uniqueness is terribly overrated. We’re only as unique as every other species, each uniquely evolved to extract the best possible hope for our genes to be passed on into infinity given the present unique circumstances. With all the bones of evolution, and a modern understanding of evolution and genetics, it’s impossible to conceive of a twenty-step progress of apes from the left to the right, let alone those neat discrete jumps in five moves. There is no measure of the progress of evolution, and the language we once used, where species were higher or lower, no longer carries any meaning for science.

Charles Darwin used those words,* as was the style of his time, when he outlined the mechanism for the origin of species in 1859. We had scant evidence for other upright apes then, with or without their spears. He had no mechanism for how that modification was passed from generation to generation. Since the end of the nineteenth century we’ve known the patterns by which characteristics are passed from parent to child. In the 1940s we discovered that DNA was the molecule that transmitted that information down the generations. Since 1953, we’ve known that the double helix is how DNA is built, giving it the impressive ability to copy itself and allow those copies to build cells just like the ones they came from. And since the 1960s we’ve known how DNA encodes proteins, and that all life is built of, or by, proteins. Those titans of science, Gregor Mendel, Francis Crick, James Watson, Rosalind Franklin, and Maurice Wilkins, stood on their predecessors’ and colleagues’ shoulders, and would in turn be the giants from whose shoulders all biologists would see into the future. The unraveling of these mysteries was the great science story of the twentieth century, and by the beginning of the twenty-first the principles of biology were set in place. In cracking the universal genetic code, and unwinding the double helix, we had unveiled a set of simple rules of life. Yet they turned out to be profoundly complex, as we will soon see.

But Darwin didn’t know any of that. When he published his

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What people think about A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived

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Critic reviews

  • Ever ordered a DNA test? Surely you've at least contemplated ordering one? If so, you should read this book. Go beyond personal ancestry by understanding the limitations and ever-growing applications of genetics with this jargon-free deep dive into the history of humanity.

    Scribd Editors

Reader reviews

  • (4/5)
    Very readable and principled overview of human genetics, particularly the bogus statements made by genetic-testing ancestry companies.
  • (3/5)
    Adam Rutherford uses DNA as source material to provide this history of human beings: how we came to be and who we are now. As a non-scientist, I found it, at times, a bit hard to follow...but mostly very readable and even humourous at times. It provides a good reality check on the expectations we place on genetic mapping. On the other hand, it ignores the whole discussion of how much information we would want to know on a personal basis -- linking our ability to know with having the resources to do anything with the information. And even though I don't subscribe to creationism, I found his rant against it over the top and unnecessarily vitriolic
  • (5/5)
    Interesting book about the developments in the study of the genetics and DNA of the human race, presented in a light and quippy style, although jargon is not absent and it requires a fair bit of close attention to comprehend the scientific concepts being presented. There are lost of interesting throwaways, such as everyone of European descent being related to Charlemagne, and the fact that we all carry Neanderthal DNA because, well, as soon as our ancestors and the Neanderthals met they got busy, frequently and enthusiastically. he also shreds the misconceptions that people place on the trendy modern practice of sending your DNA off in a envelope to have your genome traced and tell you if you are of Viking descent (fact: everyone of European descent has some Viking DNA). Overall a wonderfully entertaining and informative book, one of the best I have read on genetics for a while.
  • (4/5)
    Genetically you are unique.

    However, there is nothing particularly special about being unique if everyone else is…

    In your 23 base pairs of DNA there are around 20,000 human protein-coding genes. To put this in perspective, a banana has 36,000... The first complete draft of the sequence was published on February 12th 2001. Being able to read this code of T C G A’s is one thing; being able to understand it is another, and we are nowhere near being able to manipulate it yet either. This code is what makes you, you, but hidden deep within it are the countless secrets of our forefathers and mothers, the history of our species including the echoes of past events. There is even small amounts of Homo Neanderthalensis and Homo Denisovan genome intertwined within our homo sapiens DNA.

    Rutherford takes us on this fascinating journey up and down our collective family trees via the spirals of our DNA. No subject is beyond his gaze, hair and eye colour, to the horrors of eugenics to finding out if a body under a carpark is a deceased monarch or why it seems to be those of European descent are the only ones who can drink milk. There are some amusing parts, such as when he lists just what journalists think that scientists have found the genes for and the genetic peril of being in the Royal family. Given how complicated this subject could have been, and it did occasionally go right over my head, it is written with a refreshing clarity. The anecdotes and stories that are in here add greatly to the book. Thankfully I could understand most of it, which is the principle aim of these books to bring science to the wider audience.
  • (4/5)
    Man's history is better told in its DNA than in its artifacts and written word, and best told in the combination of DNA evidence, collected artifacts and other data. Rutherford adds extensive DNA research findings to the already found evidence of artifacts that archaeologists have replied upon for so long. Yet, both DNA and archaeology require stupendous amounts of reasoning, logic, insight, deductive reasoning and supporting details from other data in order to create the most accurate picture of the earlier history of our own species.
    This book offers an interesting read about our past, differing with some previous findings and beliefs, presenting some that are seen differently by other writers and adding a lot to the overall understanding of our species' development through time.
    Much of science involves deductive reasoning that produces conclusions which are workable but not necessarily accurate. (The strength of science, of course, is that when its previous conclusions ARE found to be inaccurate, they are discarded). One conclusion that the Rutherford's work rests upon is that Homo Neanderthal died out as a separate and distinct species through interbreeding with Homo Sapiens to become the current species of Homo Sapiens we all are. This conclusion is speculative and differs with the one presented and developed in the book "Sapiens", a current best seller and another highly worthwhile book everyone should read.
    Rutherford has pieced together a fascinating and engaging read for lay people such as myself that helps make a very complex science-the interpretation of DNA evidence-into a comprehensible contribution to everyone's understanding of our own past.

  • (2/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    This should have been a good book, but is spoiled by sloppy writing and the lack of an editor.The author seems to know his stuff, and he has interesting things to stay, but he doesn't say them particularly well. Two things particularly irritated me - wandering sentences where the subject and object and meaning get hopelessly separated; and wandering digressions that drift from the intent of the book (it even seemed that some of the content had been dictated, possible after dinner). In addition, the reader gets the sense that some of the content was written for other purposes, and the chapters/sections have been cobbled into use in this volume.All of these problems in the writing could have been cured by an editor. The sentence construction could have been tightened, simplified and ambiguities removed. Similarly, the digressions could have been pruned. And the overlap and repetition of the disparate sections could have tidied up. Easily. Then the book would have been more fun to read.There would still be some difficulties. A core of the book is the statistical analysis of genetic information. Sadly, statistic is clearly not the forte of Rutherford. He presents the findings of others, but is unable to make the numbers sing, or to find the example or metaphor that would make the analysis light up for a lay reader.But, I'm glad I read the book, and I look forward to future books by Rutherford - as long as the publisher invests in an editor.

    1 person found this helpful