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bk review Steve OLSON 'Mapping Human History'
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.
        Olson 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.
       
        A 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?
       
        Lumping 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.     

        Sales of 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.
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