What I’m Reading Now


Another in an occasional series and another that’s headed back to the library tomorrow. The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shaped Our Identities and Our Futures is not at all as advertised: It promised to be an in-depth, science heavy study of the human genome. It is in depth, but Christine Kenneally has written a lively and engaging portrait of the human race from before we left Africa and mated with Neanderthals to a look at promises for the future to cure or eliminate a variety of illnesses. Despite the science, Kenneally maintains a jargon-free tone.

Among the surprises are the notion that traits such as selfishness may be passed on, not by “nurture” but by nature; that migration stories are far more complicated than we previously thought; that number of cultures sanctioning and even encouraging marriage between close relatives can be staggering.

The only drawback: Invisible History is Euro-centric – not surprising considering that Kenneally is an Australian and fascinated by the convict history of the country’s white colonists. She spends much time among those folks and among the residents in obscure islands off the Scottish mainland.

Nevertheless she does an expert job with the Jefferson-Hemings connection. She also approaches the mystery of the Melungeons, the group in Appalachia who denied its African heritage – until DNA came along. That section has a fascinating discussion of how family stories and sociology play a big part in establishing and solidifying our identities.

The ethical issues surrounding DNA testing and its uses receive a thoughtful review. The debate will continue but would benefit from careful consideration of the observations in Invisible History. 

The most poignant section involves the attempts to use the rapid developments in DNA science to spare families the scourge of Huntington’s disease. Kenneally leaves us with many rays of hope, and that’s a wonderful thing.

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