Book Review: A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived – Adam Rutherford

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Story in Our Genes is a must read! Here’s why. I found this gem while in the Sydney International Airport waiting for a flight out of Australia. As a family historian and self-proclaimed book nerd, the title just leapt out at me because I was thinking how cheeky it was! Really? A history of EVERYONE who EVER lived?

Of course I got the fact that the author, Adam Rutherford, was being somewhat sarcastic, yet I was now intrigued as to what he meant by it and how he was going to prove it. His marketing worked! I skimmed through the book and knew instantly I had to have it.

As a geneticist who worked on the groundbreaking scientific study The Human Genome Project, Adam Rutherford is no armchair genealogist like me, he is a scientist of the highest order and, to our good fortune, a fantastic writer.

Although he can be a bit tangential at times, like the gallant young knight who was so excited he galloped off in all directions, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is a remarkably lucid distillation of the science side of genetics into a palatable semi-treatise on the human genome.

His first chapter, Horny and Mobile, both made me laugh and at the same time wonder what the heck he was on about. That phrase set the tenure for the whole book. Don’t worry if you’re a prude like me he doesn’t present his material in a crude or crass manner!

His explanation of how early humans proliferated and how we are related to Neanderthals, Denisovans, and a few other species of the genus Homo, is very compelling. He elucidates several key facts about our human past in relationship to our evolutionary timescale and our mobility as bipedal hunters. Early hominids apparently have been ranging over Europe for the last 4 million years; however, our Sapiens species only for the last 60,000 years or so. He brings all of those realities into harmony.

What really fascinated me was his theory of our human ancestry not as a TREE but as a WEB!

This is something that I had considered yet locked away in the recesses of my brain until I read A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived. What Adam Rutherford was positing, via other scientists as well, was that “how can we have fewer ancestors in the past if each generation before us increases by a factor of 2?”

Consider this: there were only 5 million people living 8,000 years ago. The question is a conundrum for sure. It’s a paradox.

Without giving away his ideas, he answers this immensely important question with erudite mathematical facts. As a U.S. reader, and someone who has English/British friends, I never tire of hearing the term maths to describe “math.” This book certainly uses ‘maths’ to quantify theories, but not so much as to be off-putting to an introductory reader.

Another section that makes this book a must read is the chapter entitled “The Most Wondrous Map Ever Produced by Humankind.” In this chapter, Adam Rutherford outlines exactly how scientists read the human genome, all 3 billion base pairs. Through analogy, we are shown exactly how our genes are encoded.

“DNA is a coded alphabet to be translated by the mechanics of a living cell into a protein; all life is made of, or by, proteins.”

It’s an absolutely fascinating chapter which not only delves into the intricacies of the inherent structure of our DNA, but it also accounts for past acts of introgression on the part of our remote ancestors. In other words, each of our 3 billion bases does something which is the compounded result over many generations of many populations.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Story in Our Genes by Adam Rutherford is an essential read for anyone interested in family history, genealogy, genetics, professional or otherwise. Its readability and relatability are the things will make it a fun and enjoyable learning experience.

CHECK IT OUT ON AMAZON! It’s a must read.

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