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on May 4, 2004
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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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. It would be unfair to fault him for this section, however, particularly since his aim isn't to prove or disprove any of the theories, but to use linguistic evolution as a metaphor. A full analysis of the topics in historical linguistics would double the size of the book. Readers interested in the topic should start with Olson's bibliography and keep reading.
Does Olson succeed in his quest? With the advances made in genetic analysis over the past generation, the origin of our species in Africa is now beyond dispute. Whether there's been enough time for local populations to form genetically distinct sub-species of Homo sapiens, Olson deftly refutes. There's been far too much intermingling and interbreeding to establish the kinds of races birds have done. That cultural ties keep groups with some identifiable physical traits such as the epicanthic folds of some Asian peoples doesn't justify labelling them with racial identities. A broadening of marriage traditions would quickly blend out the trait, as it already has in some areas.
Olson has performed a monumental task in defining our species. He covers the globe over an immense time span. He traces, as best he can with current evidence, the various tracks our ancestors took in occupying the planet. There's little doubt he's built a solid case for our identity as a single, if widespread, species. He helps his theme with some useful maps and other diagrams. Clearly our common ancestor denies the notion of "separate races".
On the other hand, why did he feel the need to make this effort. Clearly, "race", whether or not biologically valid, is a strong element in human thinking. Why this should be doesn't appear to be something we can identify through genetic analysis. The cause is ultimately, as Olson tentatively concedes, cultural. Bring up your children to hate someone identifiable, and they likely will do so. In Hawaii, likely the planet's most ethnically blended society, intermarriage, mixed schools and churches and full job opportunity, still has not shed divisions among its people. Olson would like his book to help overcome those divisions. It isn't likely to happen unless every human alive reads this book. And accepts his conclusions. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on February 19, 2004
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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on January 11, 2004
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. Although they used stone tools and fire, they were not true humans, and the question of whether they mixed with homo sapiens was answered conclusively in the negative through recent tests on DNA recovered from old bones.
Finally, North America offers a glimpse at the clovis cultures and the growing evidence of pre-clovis people. Olson grew up in Washington State and digresses to talk about Kinnewick man, the 13,500 year-old Caucasian skull discovered there in 1996. Here we also learn about the "Mongoloid spot", a patch of bluish skin found near the base of the spine in some children of Asian descent-also seen among native Americans (but never Europeans or Africans), more evidence of their Asian history.
Unfortunately Steve Olson is a big believer in the Blank Slate hypothesis, that it's dangerous to think about biological evidence that races are different, so his book veers toward political correctness at all costs.
Generally this is a readable book, though you will be disappointed if you come hoping that its status as a National Book Award finalist means it can compete with the likes of Guns Germs and Steele. It can't.
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on October 18, 2003
Not only is this book superbly well written, so that mere graduates with humanities degrees like me can understand it, but it also shows that racism is biologically wrong, which is wonderfully ironic since it is biology that racists in the past have used to argue that their pernicious and evil doctrines are scientifically correct (such as Hitler).
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on October 11, 2003
I consider myself to be well educated but I'm by no means a scientist. Some science books scare know the ones I'm talking about. Within five pages of the first chapter I feel like I should have taken a course before starting the book. Let me reassure all you other non-scientists--this is not that kind of science book. In fact, as a lay person I'd have to say this is one of the best non-fiction books I've read this year.
Olson takes the reader on a fascinating journey through time and place to follow our human ancestors (and their genes) out of Africa and into the big, bad world. The number one thing I took away from this book is that skin color, facial characteristics, language, and culture don't really matter in the bigger picture. The unavoidable truth is that we're all related and we all come from the same starting point. Of course, this is nothing new to folks who have been following scientific research in the past 20-30 years...but Olson really brings the point home by taking us right into the heart of genetic research as it's happening today.
I enjoyed the way Olson focused on a variety of groups--Jews, Africans, Native Americans, Polynesians--to show just how ephemeral cultural and racial distinctions really are. This is a great book for history buffs and armchair anthropologists alike.
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on September 8, 2003
Steve Olson's Mapping Human History is a wonderful account of the journeys of modern man. The author explains all of the science involved in a very understandable and readable way so that all readers can follow this fascinating story. The narrative concerns the migration of man out of Africa and then all around the globe. Language and archeology play a part but this book focuses on the genetic clues to piece together this history which everyone alive today shares. Along the way, he debunks theories of race and any idea of biology as destiny. The author shows that we, modern humans, are all genetically related wherever we have recently hailed from. He does not shy away from the various controversies that swirl around these ideas but tackles them with great skill, particularly in the chapters focusing on the Americas. This is a very informative and entertaining book.
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on June 12, 2003
Science, history, and medical technology blend in Mapping Human History, a survey of the genes and how genetics can produce unique historical and cultural insights as well as medical breakthroughs. Many of the ethnic and racial differences which divide societies are biologically meaningless, Olson maintains: Mapping Human History draws some important links between genes and human origins.
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on June 12, 2003
Science, history, and medical technology blend in Mapping Human History, a survey of the genes and how genetics can produce unique historical and cultural insights as well as medical breakthroughs. Many of the ethnic and racial differences which divide societies are biologically meaningless, Olson maintains: Mapping Human History draws some important links between genes and human origins.
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on June 11, 2003
Steve Olson's "Mapping Human History" spews non-stop ideas and concepts that are politically fashionable in today's society, but have no basis in fact.
I generally enjoy reading almost anything. Whether it inspires me to change or reaffirm my opinion on an issue, look at something in a new way. or just come up with good discussion material with my friends, it's generally a rewarding experience. But this book is on a very short list of non-fiction that I couldn't bring myself to finish reading.
From the very first page of the preface, he starts making unsupported claims that racism of some form is the source for all the human-induced suffering in the world, and that it is unfounded. He cites examples of racially diverse areas of the world, such as slavery-era America, the Balkan peninsula, and most of the middle east to show the violence and hate that can spread when people indulge in racially motivated activity. He conveniently overlooks the fact that the same pattern of behavior has emerged from more racially homogenous areas as well. How does he explain the behavior of certain areas of northern Europe, pre-Columbian America, and China without the convenient excuse of racism?
Yes, Steve, genetically speaking I'm 99% identical to people from every continent and racial group. But the same quantity my DNA is identical to that of a chimpanzee, and nearly as much to a rat, horse, or any other mammal. What's your point? In those other racially homogenous areas, people still tended to separate themselves into tribes, clans, or other social structures in order to take advantage of the benefits of a close-knit society. This social splintering happened even without any mentionable racial differences. Why don't you investigate this instead of spouting pseudo-science?
When I read other non-fiction books about the origin of humanity, I turn to the back cover after finishing the book to read more about the author, see where he studied for his masters and Ph.D, what work he (or she) has done, and what other books they've written that I might like to read. Instead of listing schools and research projects he has worked on, Olsen's page explains himself as a science _journalist_. His lack of academic credentials is obvious from the over-politicizing way that he presents his allegations without supporting them with any rigor.
If you are interested in a macroscopic view of human history, let me instead suggest Robert Wright's book "Nonzero". Whether you agree with Wright's premises or not, you will still find it a much more thought-provoking and enjoyable book.
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