In this fascinating account of the history of humans on planet earth, Angela Saini pushes the story of evolution back to 200,000 years, (instead of the more frequent ‘45,000 years ago’), and presses for a diffused history of mankind, rather than a linear evolutionary model. The idea that people emerged in China, as much as in Africa, shows us how ‘nationalist’ histories evoke their differences in terms of archaeological interpretations of autonomous origins, rather than in shared origins which was the earlier motivation. The latter view gave us Levi Stauss’s notion of the unity of the human mind, which was such an ideological peg for understanding cultural differences and human unity.
However, Ms Saini is enthusiastic about analysing the present interest in DNA tests, which people spend money on, in order to enquire about their generic origins from sources which are commercial or popular science agencies. Her answer to this is that DNA is actually a wild guess about probabilities and that actually, the further back one goes in this tracing of genes, the likelihood is that everyone is related to everyone under the umbrella of the ‘human’. It is her scepticism that makes her evermore curious, whether it is the relation between genes and cultural characteristics such as the handy use of chopsticks, or the socio-cultural reason why the mortality rate of Africo-American children is higher. She looks at the way in which race is used as a measuring rule, by which means performance is credited to those who are successful in the ‘efficiency and intelligence quotients’ because they are from ‘developed’ parts of the world, have better nutrition or access to education, and usually have a white skin. This is an old and well-known story, but what Ms Saini brings to the story is her own unique conversational signature. She travels widely and frequently, meets people, and she asks them simple questions and gets really complex answers. Her sense of anxiety propels her to many institutions where she gets easy access, and people pour out their ideas, their plans, their dreams. She is clear that she really has a motive in looking at the idea of DNA and race, because she finds that this homogenizing of attributes associated with a particular community or group, tremendously damaging.