The Invisible History of the Human Race – Book Review
Author: Christine Kenneally
Publisher: VIKING, Penguin Group, 375 Hudson Street, NY, NY 10014
Copyright: 2014, ISBN: 0670025558
Cover: Jason Ramirez, Ben Wiseman, Nicole Clea
Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, November 20, 2014
Summary: Genetics from the perspective of community groupings and heritage derived from community history. Couple of interesting factoids but nothing new except the reporting of an apparent verbal wrestling match between historians and genealogist about the relevancy of genetics in history.
If there is an argument between genealogists and historians about the significance of genealogy in history it is an argument, most likely, started by genealogists. If there is such an argument, and I am not saying there is, it must, by its inherent constitutional disposition, be the most inane arguments imaginable. Case in point, the gist of the “genealogy is important in history” argument provided in THE INVISIBLE HISTORY OF THE HUMAN RACE. This book is really delightful and engaging reading but it has a tendency to wonder.
Genealogy and the tracks of History
Immediately after reading Kenneally’s book, I started reading REBEL YELL by S. C. Gwynne. Funny how one thing leads into another—or funny not. Though REBEL YELL reads as if it was written by a Jackson relative, Gwynne recounts the seemingly incredible story of Thomas “Stonewall” J. Jackson who went from being an unpopular physics professor to a general in the U. S. Confederate Army. In passing, Gwynne also provides a glance into the pre-Civil War life of Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and a few others. It is difficult to consider the X and Y chromosomes of these men when you consider where they started and where they ended up. They all ended up dead of course. But the journey from their start of life to their death could not have been predicted by examining a configuration of genes. Surly even a genealogist would not argue with that: Nor would a historian.
Kenneally arrives at her rather simple and obvious conclusion about genealogy and history through a complicated exposition of sociological gauges used to develop theories of societal development. Everyone has a parent? Yes. Parents pass along their fears, phobias, likes and loves to their children, do they not? Yes. Viola, genealogical relevance to history is enormous. Note the sublimity here however. History does not make itself or parents. History is made by individuals and individuals, are for the most part, a product of their times. We would have to go back to the very first parents to declare genealogy a co-equal force in history. But wait. There is a twist.
Kenneally takes exception with some who view others with an interest in genealogy as elitists in search of an elite. There really are some with an interest in family history beyond mere father, mother and grandparents. Those people are looking for kings and queens and other luminaries in their ancestry. The author concedes this in a way. But for her, and those of us who have mentally made it to the twenty-first century, genealogy, and genetic information specifically, is one more pathway into the future of our personal history.
Messing with Neanderthals
I had my genome examined. I was not looking for ancestors. I was looking for genetic health indicators. This was before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided that I was too stupid to examine and interpret the results. They prohibited the genetic testing service I used from farther supplying such results. The FDA may have issued their prohibition based on genetic results showing that one-point-one percent of my genome is traceable to some long forgotten Neanderthal ancestor. It is a rather common linkage in the genes of Americans and Europeans. Or, to be fair, the FDA may have issued the prohibition based on my voting record. Who knows? Most likely, it was the combination of Neanderthal genes and my voting record that prompted the FDA to take the action they did.
One would think the FDA’s efforts would be better spent monitoring some of those new-pills-for-new-diseases advertisements. With disease names like Ed, Cod, Grut, and my favorite, Dry-Eye, there is a suspicion that someone somewhere is sitting down and making these things up. These same someones suspect the culprit is the pharmaceutical industrial-complex, or Pic as I prefer to call them since I am not a good speller and my attention span is challenged by anything above two syllables. Obviously, I digress here.
In any event, I learned nothing new nor unexpected from my genetic profile. Well, except for that Neanderthal thing. The profile confirmed a suspicion I have had since dodging incoming rockets in Vietnam. I have a greater elevated genetic risk than the general population of dying of a heart attack or heart failure. My genetic profile did not exactly tell me this. It simply found a common genetic marker for atrial fibrillation, which does not indicate either a pending heart attack or heart failure, thank you very much FDA. In fact, the genetic marker does not even mean that I have or will develop atrial fibrillation, thank you very much FDA. My maternal grandfather died of a heart attack, so I put two and genetic marker together and conclude that the genetic marker is most likely correct that my death will be related to my heart unless I am not so lucky in dodging other stuff in the future. Currently, I am in what optimists call a perfect state of health and what pessimists call a long decline toward death. I also learned that I have some 752 third-to-ninth generation cousins whom I do not know and have no desire to know, which, brings us back to the central thesis of THE INVISIBLE HISTORY OF THE HUMAN RACE.
Genealogy and Behavior
In Chapter 2 of the book, Kenneally tells us that Madison Grant, born in 1865 in New York City, New York, released the book THE PASSING OF THE GREAT RACE in 1916. It was translated into German in 1925. If you were looking for the source of the bad impression a lot of people have about genetics, Madison Grant’s book is a good place to start. He advocated eugenics—the weeding of a society’s population of undesirables based on the view that bad things run in bad genealogies. (Bad genealogies is a theme in Dean Koontz’s, THE BAD PLACE, published in 1990). Nazi Germany implemented Grant’s ideas to the fullest, killing “over two hundred thousand” according to Kenneally. Of course it was an easy step from eradicating the congenially sick to eradicating an identifiable group of people you just did not like because they were different. Nazi Germany also did that.
Kenneally never says that genes, and hence genealogy, is responsible for a behavior or group of behaviors. The closest she comes is at the end of the book, Chapter 14, when she discusses epigenetics. Even here however, she does not cross the Rubicon—an individual’s genes may indeed be modified by the actions of a grandparent, but the grandparent’s genes do not determine (dictate expression of) how the individual will respond to the modification. Again, we are talking about the sublimity of the individual in the here and now juxtaposed to those who have gone before. Both are products of their age, of their time.
If our genes were the determinants in our behavior, genealogy would be important not only to us as individuals, but to historians as chroniclers of human behavior and events. So, we must go up one hierarchical level of our biological existence to at least guess at some other behavior determinate. Kenneally does this and she does it in an unexpectedly insightful and refreshing way.
In Chapter five, Kenneally delves into the question of genetics and behavior by examining the history and development of her native Australia. She writes, “. . .the Australian penal colony was one of the most successful examples of rehabilitation and the raising up of people in history.” Used as a penal colony in Britain starting in 1836 (to 1856), Australia’s current population is just as law abiding as any other. Genetic history does not determine behavior. Even the influence the behavior of previous grandparents do not affect the behavior of descendants—the epigenetic component.
If the point is not clear or has been missed, in Chapter six, Kenneally reports on the attitude of present day Africans toward others in their immediate community. Her point is that during the four phases of the African slave trade (trans-Saharan slave trade, the Red Sea slave trade, the Indian Ocean slave trade taking Africans “to the Middle East, Indian and the Indian Ocean plantation islands”, and the Atlantic slave trade transporting slaves to the new world), a miasma of distrust lingers in those African communities in which people were sold or traded into slavery by the then ruling power structure. She reports that Harvard economist, then a graduate student, Nathan Nunn “discovered that the legacy was on not only the material and institutions from the past lost also in the way people thought about one another.”
The gist of viewing history as genealogy is the same as whipping up a cake batter and sticking a Hershey’s chocolate bar into it and calling it a chocolate cake. Is it worth an argument?
THE INVISIBLE HISTORY OF THE HUMAN RACE is really an enjoyable book to read even with the spacious conflict regarding the importance of genealogy to history. Fact is of course you cannot have history without genealogy and you cannot have genealogy without a history. Please read this book. It is rather stimulating.