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Who We Are and How We Got Here
Cover of Who We Are and How We Got Here
Who We Are and How We Got Here
Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past
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A groundbreaking book about how ancient DNA has profoundly changed our understanding of human history.

Geneticists like David Reich have made astounding advances in the field of genomics, which is proving to be as important as archeology, linguistics, and written records as a means to understand our ancestry.

In Who We Are and How We Got Here, Reich allows readers to discover how the human genome provides not only all the information a human embryo needs to develop but also the hidden story of our species. Reich delves into how the genomic revolution is transforming our understanding of modern humans and how DNA studies reveal deep inequalities among different populations, between the sexes, and among individuals. Provocatively, Reich's book suggests that there might very well be biological differences among human populations but that these differences are unlikely to conform to common stereotypes.

Drawing upon revolutionary findings and unparalleled scientific studies, Who We Are and How We Got Here is a captivating glimpse into humankind—where we came from and what that says about our lives today.
A groundbreaking book about how ancient DNA has profoundly changed our understanding of human history.

Geneticists like David Reich have made astounding advances in the field of genomics, which is proving to be as important as archeology, linguistics, and written records as a means to understand our ancestry.

In Who We Are and How We Got Here, Reich allows readers to discover how the human genome provides not only all the information a human embryo needs to develop but also the hidden story of our species. Reich delves into how the genomic revolution is transforming our understanding of modern humans and how DNA studies reveal deep inequalities among different populations, between the sexes, and among individuals. Provocatively, Reich's book suggests that there might very well be biological differences among human populations but that these differences are unlikely to conform to common stereotypes.

Drawing upon revolutionary findings and unparalleled scientific studies, Who We Are and How We Got Here is a captivating glimpse into humankind—where we came from and what that says about our lives today.
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  • From the book Part I

    The Deep History of Our Species

    1

    How the Genome Explains Who We Are

    The Master Chronicle of Human Variation

    To understand why genetics is able to shed light on the human past, it is necessary to understand how the genome—defined as the full set of genetic code each of us inherits from our parents—records information. James Watson, Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, and Maurice Wilkins showed in 1953 that the genome is written out in twin chains of about three billion chemical building blocks (six billion in all) that can be thought of as the letters of an alphabet: A (adenine), C (cytosine), G (guanine), and T (thymine).1 What we call a “gene” consists of tiny fragments of these chains, typically around one thousand letters long, which are used as templates to assemble the proteins that do most of the work in cells. In between the genes is noncoding DNA, sometimes referred to as “junk” DNA. The order of the letters can be read by machines that perform chemical reactions on fragments of DNA, releasing flashes of light as the reactions pass along the length of the DNA sequence. The reactions emit a different color for each of the letters A, C, G, and T, so that the sequence of letters can be scanned into a computer by a camera.

    Although the great majority of scientists are focused on the biological information that is contained within the genes, there are also occasional differences between DNA sequences. These differences are due to random errors in copying of genomes (known as mutations) that occurred at some point in the past. It is these differences, occurring about one every thousand letters or so in both genes and in “junk,” that geneticists study to learn about the past. Over the approximately three billion letters, there are typically around three million differences between unrelated genomes. The higher the density of differences separating two genomes on any segment, the longer it has been since the segments shared a common ancestor as the mutations accumulate at a more or less constant rate over time. So the density of differences provides a biological stopwatch, a record of how long it has been since key events occurred in the past.

    The first startling application of genetics to the study of the past involved mitochondrial DNA. This is a tiny portion of the genome—only approximately 1/200,000th of it—which is passed down along the maternal line from mother to daughter to granddaughter. In 1987, Allan Wilson and his colleagues sequenced a few hundred letters of mitochondrial DNA from diverse people around the world. By comparing the mutations that were different among these sequences, he and his colleagues were able to reconstruct a family tree of maternal relationships. What they found is that the deepest branch of the tree—the branch that left the main trunk earliest—is found today only in people of sub-Saharan African ancestry, suggesting that the ancestors of modern humans lived in Africa. In contrast, all non-Africans today descend from a later branch of the tree.2 This finding became an important part of the triumphant synthesis of archaeological and genetic and skeletal evidence that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s for the theory that modern humans descend from ancestors who lived in the last hundred thousand years or so in Africa. Based on the rate at which mutations are known to accumulate, Wilson and his colleagues estimated that the most recent African ancestor of all the branches, “Mitochondrial Eve,” lived sometime after 200,000 years ago.3 The best current estimate is around 160,000...
About the Author-
  • DAVID REICH, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, is one of the world's leading pioneers in analyzing ancient human DNA. In a 2015 article in Nature, he was named one of ten people who matter in all of the sciences for his contribution to transforming ancient DNA data "from niche pursuit to industrial process." Awards he has received include the Newcomb Cleveland Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Dan David Prize in the Archaeological and Natural Sciences for his computational discovery of intermixing between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.
Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    A surprising new description of how Homo sapiens originated in Africa and spread around the world.In his first book, Reich (Genetics/Harvard Medical School) describes the revolution in his specialty, genomics, the branch of molecular biology that analyzes our genes, units of DNA that transmit hereditary information from parent to offspring. Since 2001, when scientists sequenced the human genome for the first time, technology has massively reduced the cost of the procedure. At the same time, researchers have become incredibly adept at extracting DNA from bones as old as 400,000 years. Readers who pay close attention will understand Reich's explanation of what this reveals. As generations pass, strings of DNA in the genome split and recombine, and errors (mutations) appear in individual genes. Comparing one genome to another reveals the relationship between populations more accurately than comparing bones. Mutations appear at a regular rate, allowing researchers to measure time elapsed as evolution proceeds. "Since 2009," writes the author, ."..whole-genome data have begun to challenge long-held views in archaeology, history, anthropology, and even linguistics--and to resolve controversies in those fields. The ancient DNA revolution is rapidly disrupting our assumptions about the past." Most agree that migrants from Turkey brought agriculture to Europe about 8,000 years ago. They once agreed that these migrants brought Indo-European languages spoken throughout most Western nations, but the studies in genomics reveal that the languages arrived with later migrants: a "ghost population" from the Russian steppes who also moved east and contributed genes to American Indians. Throughout the book, Reich includes numerous timelines, graphs, maps, and diagrams to assist readers in visualizing his material, but those who are not scientifically inclined may find the narrative difficult to follow--though ultimately rewarding.Not an easy read, but an eye-opening account of significant scientific advances that throw a spectacular, often unexpected light on human prehistory.

    COPYRIGHT(2018) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (Online Review)

  • Library Journal

    April 1, 2018

    "Population mixture is central to human nature," writes Reich (genetics, Harvard Med. Sch.), but politics, historical injustices, Western advantage, technical issues, and local sensitivities affect the conduct, interpretation, and dissemination of ancestral genomic research. The field changes rapidly, perhaps even rendering portions of this book inaccurate before its release. We do know our ancestors repeatedly interbred with other hominids, at widely separated times. What ancient DNA analysis also reveals is human history punctuated by multiple migratory waves, sometimes of people returning to areas they departed millennia before. Vanished prehistoric "ghost populations" manifest themselves today as segments of our chromosomes. Socially powerful men of the past--whether the Bronze Age or the era of colonialism--are overrepresented in our present-day genomes. Reich acknowledges the concerns of those who fear talk of biological differences between populations will lead to an upwelling of racism based upon genetic determinism. Unfortunately, his argument that scientists can steer discussion toward informed inclusion is unconvincing. VERDICT Geneticists, archaeologists, and linguists will appreciate this detailed work, but most readers will find Adam Rutherford's A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes more appealing.--Nancy R. Curtis, Univ. of Maine Lib., Orono

    Copyright 2018 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    March 15, 2018
    This is the story of what, enabled by technological quantum leaps, recent genomic research, from 2009 to the present, has already revealed about the deep past of the human species, of which modern humans are a subgroup. Perhaps the most well-known discovery has been that that other subgroup, Neanderthals, interbred with modern humans. Rather less well-known but just as earthshaking is the discovery of another human subgroup, the Denisovans, and the possibility that yet more will be discovered. The three sections of researcher Reich's summary report on genomic analysis of ancient DNA lay out how the gleanings of such research reveal the variety and the dispersal of prehistoric humans throughout the world, how ancient DNA discloses humanity's development in different parts of the world, and the implications of ancient DNA research for the future, especially for dispelling race-based conceptions of differences among modern humanity. Though probably not the easiest reading of the year, Who We Are and How We Got Here may be the most rewarding for those enthralled by humanity's long prehistory.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2018, American Library Association.)

  • Colin Renfrew, Disney Professor of Archeology Emeritus, University of Cambridge "In just five years, the study of ancient DNA has transformed our understanding of world prehistory. The geneticist David Reich, one of the pioneers in this field, here gives the brilliantly lucid first account of the resulting new view of human origins and of the later dispersals that went on to shape the modern world,"
  • Molly Przeworski, Professor of Biological Sciences, Colombia University "Reich's magisterial book gives a riveting account of human prehistory and history through the new lens provided by ancient DNA data. The story of human populations, as he shows, is ever one of widespread and repeated mixing, debunking the fiction of 'pure' populations."
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Who We Are and How We Got Here
Who We Are and How We Got Here
Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past
David Reich
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