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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 336-337 ( 21 August )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/olson.html

Book Review

Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through our Genes
by Steve Olson
2002, New York: Houghton Mifflin

Reviewed by Robin Dunbar, Evolutionary Psychology Research Group, School of Biological Sciences, University of Liverpool, UK.

Genetics has made an enormous contribution to our understanding of human history in the last few years. The ability to trace genetic lineages through mitochondrial or Y-chromosome DNA has given us unexpected and sometimes quite astonishing insights into human history and recent human evolution. This book seeks to tell that story, at least in accessible popular form. The author, Steve Olson, is a professional writer who has worked for the US National Academy of Sciences and the Institute for Genomic Research, as well as for one of the White House’s science offices.

All this seemed like a promising start when I picked the book up. I looked forward to some in-depth accounts of the histories of recent and past human migrations. I have to say I was disappointed, but this may be because I came to the book with a particular set of expectations. Although there is quite a lot about migrations and origins (the origins of modern humans, the genetic history of the Jews, the genetics of western China, the spread of the Indo-Europeans, language phylogenies, the genetic structure of the modern French), the main focus of the book seemed to be elsewhere. The account of the peopling of the Americas (which in any case relied heavily on a combination of Greenberg’s - still disputed - linguistic analyses and the archaeology) and the genetics of the French, for example, were used mainly as a stick to beat racists over the head.

Indeed, what seemed like an unnecessary proportion of the book was devoted to combating the confusions of the lunatic fringe (perhaps, like creationists, they are just more abundant in the USA?). If that was the aim of the book, then fine, but an alternative title might have saved me the trouble of reading it. Meanwhile, the opportunity was missed to air some nice issues to have emerged out of evolutionary studies of human behaviour that relate directly to racism. Much was made, for example, of the fact that half the world spends its time running around searching for its origins despite the fact that, thanks to quirks of history and demographic crunches of one kind or another, we can all expect to have most of the famous figures of the past (or at least, the distant past) in our ancestry somewhere. Or that the levels of migration have been sufficiently high that almost no national or racial or even tribal group - not even the Jews -­ can lay claim to having a pure genetic ancestry.

So why do people insist on tracking their ancestries? Well, one answer, worked out in nice detail by Austen Hughes (1) some years ago in an exemplary piece of theoretical analysis, is that the past is a fiction, but an entirely necessary one. Hughes pointed out that the past it is the only stable point in the constantly moving window of relatedness, but we need a stable point off which to hang our current patterns of relatedness: because of the way genetic relatedness dissipates with successive generations, it really doesn’t matter whom you put into your ancestry (you get the same genetic patterns if you include the sun or the moon as your ancestor - but it does still matter to you that you get your relationships right. It would have nice to see more of this kind of material. Incidentally, while we are on the racial issue - I was struck by the racial bias of the work discussed: obviously by a remarkable coincidence, rather a lot of those whose research is fronted just happen to be North American or based in North America…..

Yet, when all is said and done, it is easy to overdo the claim that no tribal groups are genetically pure. The fact is that there are genetic signatures that shine through the overlying smoke of history. The mass movements of history and late prehistory notwithstanding, there are pockets of quite extraordinary genetic difference. The Basques, despite all the admixtures and the inter-marrying, are sufficiently distinctive in both genetic profile and language from their European neighbours to raise interesting questions without having to resort to the trivia of racism. Of course, the intrusion of culture provides an important dimension to this, and that is perhaps all the more reason to ask why and how these various equally important facets of our biology link together.

My other irritation with the book concerned the frequency with which personal stories and the author himself intruded into the book (the “sipping my beer at a pavement café with Joe Smith one sunny day….” syndrome). There is a fashion for this style of writing in the popular science literature. I guess it adds a sense of the personal in what is, inevitably, a rather dry impersonal business. But when it is overdone, it intrudes too much into the story line and detracts from what should, of itself, be an exciting enough issue. The risk is that it conveys just a hint that the author is trying to fill pages but doesn’t really quite know what more there is to say.

The bottom line, then, is a book that didn’t live up to its hype. Factually, there was little to fault it on (other than omissions, perhaps), and it may well provide a good read for those for whom this is a first introduction to these exciting and rapidly developing areas of modern science. I gleaned one or two useful new examples from it that I didn’t know about, but I’m not sure I would recommend it as a good read to any readers of this journal.


Hughes, A. (1988). Evolution and Human Kinship. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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© Robin Dunbar.


Dunbar, R. I. M. (2002). Review of Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through our Genes by Steve Olson. Human Nature Review. 2: 336-337.

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