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Olson explains why most geneticists believe that modern humans, no matter how different they may seem, are biologically very similar. There is no room in this book for theories about how one "race" is somehow better than another--or even for the idea that the term "race" has any meaning at all. Our cultures may have divided us, but our DNA betrays the fact that we are all descended from a small group of modern humans who lived in eastern Africa about 100,000 years ago. There simply hasn't been enough time to make us dramatically different from each other, despite what racists would have us believe.
The theory that modern humans originated in Africa fairly recently and then spread throughout the world is still, of course, hotly debated. A number of reputable scientists favor the multiregional hypothesis, which claims that modern humans evolved in various places around the world from archaic populations already living in those regions. The mutliregional hypothesis implies that the differences between modern groups are deeply rooted in the very distant past. Olson clearly disagrees with that view, and he does a good job of presenting the genetic evidence that points to a more recent African origin (sometimes called the "Out of Africa II" hypothesis).
In the course of doing so, Olson touches on many interesting points. A few of the more striking were these:
First, Olson describes recent DNA research indicating that Neanderthals were in fact a different species from our own. This is another hotly debated proprosition, and I suspect that experts could criticize the DNA analysis that Olson describes on the grounds that it's pretty hard to make sense of 35,000 year old DNA. Still, Olson makes a good case that the new results are compelling and consistent with other evidence.
Second, Olson describes the Jewish tradition that the male descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses, will be the high priests of the Israelites. Genetic research among the kohanim (priests), who often have a surname like Cohen, Cohn, or Kahn, suggests that many of these persons are in fact descended from a common male ancestor, who may indeed have been Aaron.
Finally, Olson explains why everyone on the planet at this point probably has some genetic material contributed by Julius Caesar and Confucius, among others. It's a small world after all, at least as far as our DNA is concerned.
The only part of the book that I didn't enjoy were the last couple of chapters, which shift from the topic at hand (i.e., "mapping human history") to questions of ethics. While these issues are important, they are too complex to be explored well in the fifty or so pages that Olson alots to them, and the discussion tends to detract from the fascinating "deep history" that is the focus of the rest of the book.
Olson, like all of our best science writers, uses an informal and conversational style to bring hard science to lay readers digestably. Get ready to learn about mitochondrial DNA, haplotypes and the impact of archaic humans.
Olson's message will be a troubling one for those who draw comfort and, sometimes, murderous fury from human divisiveness. But this book adds to the growing body of significant science and scientific journalism that will lay arguments of inherent cultural superiority to rest among any who are able to approach this material with an open mind and a hate-free heart. This book should be required reading for every member of the human race.
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If you actually decide to buy this book, START by reading the poll in the back of the book (skip the author's comments). THEN start at the beginning.
I am NOT part of the flyfishing industry, other than I do purchase and use their products. After reading this book, I think I'll take the pollees' advice and keep my stiff rod and WF line and have fun.
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