Steve OLSON 'Mapping Human
History: Discovering the Past Through Our Genes'
London: Bloomsbury 2002 292pp.
reviewed by L R B Mann
This is a
'popular' rather than a scientific book, light on facts yet oddly hard
to read. It appears to have been aimed at a market niche less
technical, more 'popular', than typical books of prominent genetics
expert Steve Jones; it gives far fewer facts, pictures &
diagrams. This approach to pop science is hard to condone; more,
not fewer, pix will be wanted if a pop-sc author eschews verbal facts
to such an extent as Olson does.
Referencing is purported, but is
inadequate in rather subtle ways. Unwilling to put one or a few
small superscripts per page, Olson requires you to try to look up in
an appendix clauses which appear to require documentation; most of
them turn out to be unreferenced. Some of these notes do tell
how a statement is justified, giving a reference; but others are just
lists of publications with no clear statement of what is said where
- bibliography, rather than referencing. For some factoids
that cry out for a ref, nothing is offered, e.g. " ... the
Holocaust had reduced the worldwide Jewish population from a prewar
high of 16.6 million to 11 million"; since some significant
fraction of Jewish deaths during that war were not directly caused by
the Holocaust, this statement tantalisingly suggests that the fabled
"6 million" is incorrect; but where Olson got these numbers
is not indicated.
The first half is peculiarly hard to
read. It conveys a general impression that there's a lot of
vague thinking going on; it's not clear whether Olson realises this,
but his own expressions are often loose. His main message is
that races are so vague as to offer no rational basis for the racial
prejudices we so often observe. This is not news -
the Germans proved it six decades ago (in the process of trying to
prove the opposite).
Despite a great deal of name-dropping, the promised
DNA evidence is set forth in only trivial ways and fails, even on its
face as presented by an enthusiast, to reinforce what we already knew
from less arcane types of information about human races. The
boundaries of race are usually so blurred in geography and in history
that racism is unworkable as a basis for government, let alone
justice. This well-known fact cannot be reinforced by DNA which
has such loose relationships with phenotypes.
has made it clear in his previous books that he is a main PR agent for
the current 'master molekule' fad status for DNA. He continues
in this book, finishing the introduction by the vague assertion that
DNA science gives us "unprecedented mastery over our own
future". The book fails to support this slogan.
chapter on Jews looks like a good idea in such a book. However,
the concept that Jews are one kind of Semite is hardly alluded to, and
the widespread folk notion of Jewishness as matrilineal is similarly
not done justice i.e. confirmed or corrected. This
chapter finishes with a quintessential Olson vagueness: he quotes some
unidentified friend (not stated to be Jewish or other): "Being
Jewish doesn't have anything to do with your genes; it has to do with
who you are". What does this vague cuteness mean? Why
is it worth quoting?
Australian & New Zealand ethnic groups into one is typical Yank
obliviousness (any foreigner who has lived among them for years is
painfully aware that most Yanks know or care very little about
anything outside their own country; all Olson's documentarising can't
quite overcome the distorting effects of his origin). The
people who reached New Zealand one millennium ago were Polynesian,
very considerably different from any Austronesians. S
Oppenheimer's concept of civilisation spreading out from maritime S.E.
Asia seems better supported in details, especially of languages, than
what Olson sets forth.
this book may or may not turn out to confirm - as a commercial
matter - its marketing strategy; but as a book on science,
it's poor. The author's previous books promoting gene-tampering
could be bolstered by this more 'scientific' promo of the
DNA-dominated view of humanity. This is a menace to science and,
especially, to education.
Never have I offered for publication
a review of a book that I've admittedly not thoroughly read.
This is an indication of how infuriating is the attempt to try to read
this very bad book. Dropping names like James D Watson, S J
Gould etc is no substitute for facts and clear statements of opinion.
This book is
a waste of time.