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  • Writer's pictureDr Edin Hamzić

Who We Are and How We Got Here

Who Are We and How We Got Here by David Reich is a very interesting overview of the field of ancient DNA. It tells the story starting with the key publication “The History and Geography of Human Genes” by Luca Cavalli-Sforza leading us through an outstanding development of ancient DNA technology until today when thousands of ancient DNA samples are extracted, sequenced, and analyzed to uncover fascinating episodes of human history.

The author, David Reich, is a leading expert in the field, actually one of the pioneers in the field of large-scale analysis of ancient DNA which gives him a unique opportunity to provide an in-depth overview of the whole field from its start-up to now.

The book is composed of three main parts:

  1. Part 1: The Deep History of Our Species: This section provides an introduction to the world of ancient DNA, its importance, and how it all started. It also introduces the encounter of humans with Neanderthals.

  2. Part 2: How We Got To Where We Are Today: This is the most interesting section, at least for me. It is a very illustrative overview of human history, at least the current knowledge of human history broken by continents.

  3. Part 3: The Disruptive Genome: This section of the book provides the author's opinion on the very important topics related to genomics and identity and genomics and race and how he sees the future of ancient DNA.

Overall, I enjoyed the book very much, and to avoid a long review I will make it quite simple. I will describe 3 things I really liked about the book and 3 things that I think could have been avoided:

Three Things I Liked About The Book:

  • The book is characterized by a very appealing and narrative style which balances very well between being technical and focused on a scientific audience and being informative and more educational focused on a non-scientific audience.

  • The overall structure of the book is well planned and easy to follow being structured in three main parts as described above with one smaller issue listed among the other three things.

Finally, the thing I really appreciated, especially these days, is that the author repeats several times that gene flow between different human populations is actually the norm and not some kind of rarity. Just to cite the author:

“Mixture is fundamental to who we are, and we need to embrace it, not deny that it occurred.”

and to cite another paragraph:

”For me, the multitude of interconnected populations that have contributed to each of our genomes provide a similar narrative that helps me to understand my own place in the world and to avoid being daunted by the vast number of people in our species—the immensity of the human population numbering in the billions. The centrality of the mixture in the history of our species, as revealed in just the last few years by the genome revolution, means that we are all interconnected and that we will all keep connecting with one another in the future. This narrative of connection allows me to feel Jewish even if I may not be descended from the matriarchs and patriarchs of the Bible. I feel American, even if I am not descended from indigenous Americans or the first European or African settlers. I speak English, a language not spoken by my ancestors a hundred years ago. I come from an intellectual tradition, the European Enlightenment, which is not that of my direct ancestors. I claim these as my own, even if they were not invented by my ancestors, even if I have no close genetic relationship to them. Our particular ancestors are not the point. The genome revolution provides us with a shared history that, if we pay proper attention, should give us an alternative to the evils of racism and nationalism, and make us realize that we are all entitled equally to our human heritage.”

3 Thing That Could Have Been Avoided

  • The overall structure of the book is good, except the part in the chapter “In Search of Native American Ancestors” where I think that narrative was broken with “Mistrust of Western Science” and “Disputes over Bones” in which the author discusses the specific situations and difficulties related to restrictions of studying human remains, specifically in the United States. Just to be clear, I find these topics very important, but I think that these would fit much better in the last part of the book which discusses genomics and identity, and race.

  • The second thing is that I think that book needs more photographs of the mentioned archaeological sites. This remark could be from more of a subjective experience as I am a visual type of person, but I think it would enrich the book and make it more appealing and helpful for the readers.

  • Finally, I understand that the author’s lab is the leading one in the field, but I got the feeling that referencing is biased toward the work of the author's lab which I again admit is outstanding and huge.



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