2018, Books, Non-Fiction

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past (2018, David Reich)

This is a fascinating, if overly academic, examination of the emerging study of “ancient DNA” that is transforming our knowledge of our past. The book covers how mapping the genome is allowing science to prove or disprove long held theories about human migrations and how old populations interacted.

There is a lot of information here which is really interesting. One frustrating aspect of the book – really the state of the science – is that this is only the beginning and there is so much more to learn. So it’s very likely that much of what Reich says in this book will be expanded upon shortly or will even be found to be incomplete or incorrect. But, as it stands, the information is fascinating and it really does challenge a lot of preconceived views about the past (some of which I was aware of and some of which I wasn’t).

One compelling part of the book is how this new research eradicates the idea of “pure” humans of a particular “stock”. They just don’t exist. Most of us knew that already but, for those who didn’t, this should be the final nail in the coffin. (It won’t be, of course. Already, people are trying to use these discoveries to prove the opposite.)

But Reich’s discussion of “race” feels problematic and incomplete to me, and I think it’s probably because he’s American. Americans are obsessed with “races” which Reich claims this new science sort of, kind of proves exist. (As opposed to the long-held belief that they are socially constructed, a belief I subscribed to before I read this book.) What Reich doesn’t address, and what I want to know is, why isn’t ethnicity a better explanatory concept? Why isn’t something based on shared language and/or shared cultural traditions better for analysis than skin colour and other physical attributes? What does skin colour really determine? Reich barely mentions the category of ethnicity; instead he’s content to discuss the similarities between groups as roughly defined by US census categories. And I can’t come up with a reason why except that he’s American. And that doesn’t feel very scientific to me.

But, on the whole, the book is really illuminating and I’ll try to pay attention to this stuff as more information becomes available.


PS If you played a drinking game with this book based on Reich’s usage of “ancient DNA”, you would die during the first chapter.

PPS: Here is a much more definitive statement about genetics and race, of the kind I would have liked to see this book.

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