At the start of 2017, one of my reading resolutions was to read more diverse books. That involved more non-fiction books about topics I had not read about before. A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is a book about human genetics and what genealogy can tell us about who we were historically and who we are today. Although this is very much a biology book (as Rutherford points out in a book related analogy about gene classification), this is the point where history and science meet.
In the first half of the book, Rutherford discusses how genealogy can help historians and anthropologists in their research to understand pre-historical and historical humans. From Neanderthals to Richard III the study of genetics has helped us understand who we used to be. As I’ve always been interested in history (I would like to thank Horrible Histories for that), I found this section fascinating. I had heard the facts and theories about pre-history human species (e.g. how modern Europeans contain on average 2% Neanderthal DNA) but I didn’t understand how modern day researchers had come to these conclusions until I read this book.
The second half of the book was a lot more scientific and focused on biological and medical research with genealogy. Rutherford explains how the study of genetics originated in racism but eventually, and ironically, disproved many Victorian and early twentieth century theories about race. There is also a lot of examples of how our current knowledge (or belief of knowledge) has influenced medicine and the legal system. From the birth of genealogy to the sequencing of the human genome, via the discovery of the double helix of DNA, Adam Rutherford has explained it in the most simple yet engaging way possible.
Although I have read a number of non-fiction books about science, I have usually steered clear of biology as it was the science I enjoyed the least at school, but as I wished to read more diverse books (and I like history) I decided to give it a go. I am glad I did. The older I get the more I realise the classifications of science done in education is unrealistic as different types of science, and even academia as a whole, merge and work together. This book is where history meets biology but also where multiple studies and theories over the centuries have come together to give us an idea of what makes us human; what makes us one species despite our superficial differences across the world.