This is a Review: The Invisible History of the Human Race, by Christine KenneallyJuly 06, 2015
Do you guys know Heather of Bits n Books? She's always reading books that are totally off my radar, and her excitement for the ones she loves shines brilliantly through her reviews and gets my TBR pile growing every time. Plus, she's from Australia, and now I can say that I have a friend in Australia. All this is to say: check her blog out!
Early last month, Heather posted a review of The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures, written by Australian journalist Christine Kenneally. I loved reading about Heather's experience learning about her genetics through The Genographic Project and how Kenneally's book shed light on some of her results. Though Heather says she doesn't "really do science," I definitely do (if you haven't already picked up on that), and this book sounded like just the blend of hard and social science that I've come to love.
Genetics has fascinated me since I took a course on it during my senior year of college, and I was excited by how many of Kenneally's factoids I remembered learning in class. I'll never forget good ol' Gregor and his pea plants. However, I think I learned far more about history than I did about DNA. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's worth knowing for those who go into it expecting mostly scientific discussion.
In addition to discussing what humans biologically pass down through their genes, Kenneally dives deep into the waters of cultural transmission, zeroing in on how communities form and maintain beliefs and attitudes over time. At one point, she discusses an economics study that examined how shifting agricultural practices (specifically, communities' adoption of the plow) affected beliefs about gender roles. When it was first debuted, the plow required significant upper-body strength to operate and, thus, was mostly used by men; because women weren't needed (or able) to help farm, they increasingly moved into the home. The researchers found that regions that adopted the plow were far more likely to develop more "traditional" ideas of women's roles over time. Not only that, but these kinds of beliefs are still found more strongly in these communities today than in communities that never adopted more mechanized (as opposed to manual) methods of farming.
Kenneally is careful to note that correlation is not causation, but I have no trouble believing that our attitudes about "innate" characteristics of men and women were formed in response to changes in our environment, rather than vice versa. The book is chock full of fascinating citations like this; my only complaint is that the endnotes weren't longer! I wanted to research a few of her points further but found it difficult to work Google magic without some source hints. Thankfully, this didn't happen much.
A few of the chapters were a slog, and I definitely found myself losing steam at the end as I ran up against my library due date. This book requires a lot of focus if you want to retain all the little details, so make sure to read it when you can give it your full attention (i.e., not during lunch break or while your boyfriend plays noisy video games right next to you).
If you're the type to wonder about how we inherit both our eye color and our personal beliefs and you enjoy a well-researched mix of personal and cultural history and scientific goodness, I think The Invisible History of the Human Race will more than fit the bill. (And, if you read it, come back so we can talk about all those awesome economics studies some more!)
Oh, and thank you once again to Heather—I never would have stumbled upon this gem if not for you!
Have you read The Invisible History of the Human Race? (Related: Is your name Heather?) Talk to me!