A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: DNA, individuals, and species

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2017/07/03/the-human-race-without-races.html

British geneticist Adam Rutherford is one of the country’s great science communicators, an alumnus of Nature whose work we’ve celebrated here for many years; with his second book, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, Rutherford reveals how the century’s astounding advances in genetic science reveal just how little we understand about our genes – and how our ideas about race and heredity are antiquated superstitions that reflect our biases more than our DNA. (See the bottom of this post for an important update about the upcoming US edition!)


Well, I feel assured in my belief that most genetic testing is hokum. Also in how stupid I thought it was to have DNA reprogramming such a plot point in TNG (and later) Star Trek, as if it were a single operation instead of rewriting the DNA in each cell, and as if that rewrite would also take effect in already existing cells. It was even worse than reversing polarity, and those writers with no understanding of biology have harmed more than they helped.

The problem is not the testing, per se, but the interpretation of results.

And given, as my son put it, “the human brain wants to cast to boolean”. Our brains want to insist that a genetic marker mean something absolute, or mean nothing at all.

Sadly, reality doesn’t work like that.

But that applies to all aspects of human endeavour, not just apply to genetics. If some piece of knowledge isn’t “actionable”, then finding it out was a waste of money.

So, there’s an huge incentive to misinterpret the data either by the scientist, or, if the scientist refuses to play along, by those interpreting or commercializing the scientist. And while greed plays its part, it’s mostly just us giving our brains what they want - a satisfying narrative.


He also hosts a podcast for BBC 4 called Inside Science:

As a genomicist, I think the problem is that too often predictions of disease and so on are done on the basis of variants of which we have no idea what the functionality is. Basically sets of people with and without a genetic disease are tested for variants and variants that are more common in the diseased set are assumed to be risk factors for the disease. But like statistical tests everywhere, correlation doesn’t mean causation. But as we begin to understand the actual molecular mechanisms of disease, it is clear that there has to be something on the genome responsible in a lot of cases.


I confess to not understanding genetics beyond the most basic level. But isn’t this what (actual) gene therapy is/might become?

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