Christine Kenneally’s Rich, Rompy Read on Genes

Illo by Eric Nyquist, via NY Times.

Of Christine Kenneally’s father’s father — a man neither Kenneally nor her father ever knew, a man who did the deed requisite to reproduction and promptly vanished — she asks, “Did he leave anything more significant than the loud bang of a door shut down the generations?” Of course he did. He left his DNA and a granddaughter determined to draw from modern genetics and hard-won family history a coherent account of her roots.

So opens my appreciation on the cover of this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review of  The Invisible History of the Human Race, Kenneally’s “smart, splendid, highly entertaining look at how DNA, increasingly visible to us since we first sequenced the human genome in 2000, can ‘open up tracts of human history that had been entirely obscure.'” The book itself opens up huge tracts of pleasure, curiosity, astonishment — and admiration at what Kenneally has done.

As I note in the review, the book could stand on its weird and delightful factoids alone, but hardly need do so. Its main argument is that DNA provides great insight into human and personal ancestry — if combined with other, broader perspectives, such as anthropology, economics, history, linguistics, and genealogy. to the prosaic work of mining archives for genealogy.

While DNA may now be visible, … it remains more hint than history. Kenneally, a journalist and linguist, shows that just as a gene usually delivers its genetic message only in conversation with an incoming chemical messenger, so our DNA tells its tales most fully only in light of the history of the people who carry and interrogate it. It takes all those threads to get the whole story. And Kenneally wants it all.

“If everyone had his DNA analyzed,” she writes, “and that information were linked to everyone’s historical information, it would be the nearest thing to the book of humanity.” She backs up this claim beautifully, showing how genetic analysis can be combined with skillful mining of historical, social and cultural information to solve fascinating riddles of ancestry.

It’s a splendid book. Do take in the full review at the Times, for more about its riches, as well as a Willie Nelson line I’ve been dying to deploy for such an occasion. Then treat yourself to Kenneally’s book (Powell’s, Indie, Amazon. B&N). It’s been a good while since I’ve read such a rich, fun, engrossing book about genetics — or about any science.