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Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins Paperback – Nov 14 2003

4.2 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (Nov. 14 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618352104
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618352104
  • Product Dimensions: 1.9 x 14 x 21 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 318 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #139,767 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


"Olson raises the level of discourse to a new high, assembling powerful evidence to support the no-races hypothesis." Kirkus Reviews

"An engaging and fast-paced look at a subject that has profound implications for our everyday lives." Publishers Weekly

"An instructive overview of human history." Boston Herald

About the Author

Steve Olson's Mapping Human History was a National Book Award finalist and won the Science-in-Society Award from the National Association of Science Writers. Olson has also written for the Atlantic Monthly, Scientific American, and Science. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where he coaches the math team at a public middle school.

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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By A Customer on May 4 2004
Format: Paperback
Steve Olson's Mapping Human History is an excellent introduction to historical genetics, and indeed it has been called by the New Scientist as "the most balanced, accessible and up-to-date survey of the field currently available." It is written by a renowned science journalist, not a scientist, who quotes and discusses the leaders in the field in a quite readable and entertaining fashion. The book has apparently offended some people by discounting ancestry (and racist offshoots) in light of the overwhelming evidence against the concept. However its scientific credentials are impeccable.
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Format: Paperback
Although many words have been written attempting to show the unity of the human species, Steve Olson makes yet another attempt. He feels the need is there to be met. Instead of basing his effort on philosophical or moral grounds, he turns to our genetic record to make his point. It's a valid quest using unimpeachable methods and Olson presents it well. Some of the material, such as Wilson and Cann's "mitochondrial Eve" may be a bit shopworn, but it's an essential element of Olson's scenario. He builds his structure carefully and solidly, so a bit of used material isn't out of place. After all, he's not attempting any new, revolutionary concept in this book. He merely wishes to displace old, traditional ideas with a new reality.
Given the entrenched thinking about "race" in human cultures, calling Olson's task daunting is grievous understatement. The human diaspora from Africa he traces reaches across 150 millennia. Unlike most other species, humanity developed at an astonishing rate. Tracing genetic changes with humans migrating across the planet, not always in one direction is staggeringly difficult. Olson struggles, usually successfully, to reconcile the paleoanthropological finds with genetics research. He demonstrates the likely origins of the Chinese, Europeans, Australian and Western Hemispheric Aborigines. One subset of our species, the Jews, receives some special attention.
Olson recognises that much of the information he addresses is "highly contentious", but he bravely sets out to reconcile the views of many researchers. He examines in some detail, for example, hotly disputed notions about linguistic evolution. Given that the human population at the beginnings of language was already "on the road", his own description of language origins seems a bit thin.
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Format: Paperback
This book is a fascinating overview of the work of the many scientists engaged in a truly scientific treatment of heritage (which would complement both our origins both mythical and religious). It's their hope that one day in the future there will be an accurate map of human history which will trace the migration of modern humans from northeast Africa to the Middle East and their subsequent diffusion throughout the world.
But this book also contains several concise arguments against the concept of human "races," a construct that does not hold up to scientific scrutiny at all (but which has been used for the past three hundred years to justify the worst crimes against humanity). The main points are that 1) while there are averages to the features of ethnic groups, these do not hold when taking individuals individually, that is, the variations between individuals of a given "race" are greater than average variations between the races themselves; 2) the vast majority of humans have "mixed" ancestry beyond about four generations; 3) every human being alive today is descended from the groups which left Africa some 65,000 years ago. Racism should really be called "contingencism", that is, when one discriminates against a group of persons based upon the wholly accidental adaptations of their ancestors to local geographical/climatic conditions.
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Format: Paperback
Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel opened the eyes of a lot of us to questions about human origins. There is the widely-known work of Rebecca L Cann, Mark Stoneking and Allan C Wilson using Mitochondrial DNA to show how all living humans are descended from a single, small band of homo sapiens who lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago. There is the tale of the Lemda, an South African group whose Jewish origins were proven with the discovery of a special DNA sequence on the Y chromosome found only in men descended from the Biblical Aaron, the so-called cohenism gene.
I had hoped that this book would follow Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, and Thomas Sowell as an overview of what is currently known about our origins, from a DNA-based genetic perspective. Steve Olson is a science journalist, not an academic, so it's too much to ask that he compete with Steven Pinker in original or bold thinking, but his writing style holds up well by those standards. He divides his story into easy-to-understand discussions of people on each continent:
Africa, where we all began 200,000 years ago.
The Middle East, the geographical bottleneck through which every group passed on its way to the rest of the world. Jews are especially interesting, because they kept much of their identity intact while mixing with the rest of the world.
Asia and Australia are lumped together because, surprisingly, the aborigines are one of the oldest groups out of Africa, probably riding around the Indian ocean on their way south.
Europe is where the Neandertals lived until as recently as 30,000 years ago.
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