Dolts and DNA

Review of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, by Adam Rutherford.

I picked up this book because it was reviewed in the Review section of the Wall Street Journal, to which I repair religiously on Saturdays. I had in mind to get current on the state of DNA research, after hearing so much hoopla about mapping of the human genome some years ago, and then there being mostly quiet since, at least in the sources I typically read.

The epiphanies I hoped for never arrived. That’s not entirely Rutherford’s fault. As he points out in the book, mapping of the human genome would be a big undertaking and there are bigger fish to fry, anyway, such as curing inherited disease. Genealogical research is not the point.

Still, DNA research tells us a lot, but most of what Rutherford relates you probably know intuitively. Rutherford explains, genetically, lactose intolerance, which is of interest to me. He explains that, contrary to a report a few years ago in the UK, redheads will not go extinct. There is more genetic variation among members of the same race, than among two randomly-chosen people of two races. Somewhat interesting. Lots of anecdotal explanations, which are really not the state-of-the-art, but rather corrections of common misunderstandings of how genetics works.

One interesting insight is a mathematical understanding of how genetic ancestry works. Rutherford explains how, for example, it is actually true that nearly everyone with any European ancestry is related to the great Charlemagne. As you trace your tree back up the generations, you very quickly get to overlaps, to the point that our ancestry is one great network, rather than an ever-dwindling step-down of branches into the main trunk, which is you. For this reason, Rutherford explains, it is possible to pinpoint to a mere 3600 years ago the most recent date on which there was a single common ancestor of everyone now alive.

Interesting, but not new. I was disappointed in this book because I felt I came away with very little that was new, even for someone like me not routinely immersed in the study of genetics or ancestry.

I admit, though, that I might have a more charitable attitude toward Rutherford, if he had a more charitable attitude toward those with whom he disagrees. Here’s what he has to say about people who don’t buy entirely into the non-teleological, naturalist version of evolution as the explanation of all biological development and of the first life as well. Early in his book he talks over his glasses at us thusly: “Nowadays, only the willfully ignorant dismiss the truth that we evolved from earlier ancestors.”

So much for critical thinking. “[C]reationism,” he says, is “frothing with risible fallacies.” Creationists are “dolts.” They make “zombie arguments.” Ambiguously, either the creationists or their arguments are “unthinking and mindless, tired and drooling, relentlessly shuffling along, impervious to reason, intelligence or debate, and desperately ugly.”

This person needs to do some more reading in the field. He may remain committed to naturalistic evolution, but before engaging in name-calling, he ought to show how “risible fallacies” inhere in thinking on the Cambrian explosion, the narrow range of available forms, irreducible complexity, the absence of transitional forms horizontally and laterally, the improbability of convergent systems, the origin of life force and reproductive urge, and a host of other issues.

Rutherford doesn’t do that because he worships Darwin, and gives no indication of having ever heard of a teleological version of biological evolution. This book isn’t about Darwin or about evolution, nor does it prove evolution through DNA (in fact, to my mind it casts more doubt), but Rutherford gushes his idolatrous admiration of Darwin. He’s a “star,” a “genius,” “the greatest of all scientists,” “at the very top of the intellectual pile.”

Everyone has heroes. But there is one person I believe Rutherford admires even more than Darwin:  Rutherford himself. His smugness gets old fast, and detracts from what might otherwise be a diverting if superficial stroll through contemporary thinking on genetics.

Verdict: disappointing; insulting.


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