As popular science writing, A Brief History is nothing less than a tour de force — a heady amalgam of science, history, a little bit of anthropology and plenty of nuanced, captivating storytelling. While Rutherford, a geneticist, science writer and broadcaster, makes both his ambition and cheekiness clear in the title, he somehow manages to deliver on its great promise. He takes us back to the beginnings of the most recent iteration of humanity in Africa circa 300,000 years ago and fills us in on all of the other ancient hominins who preceded — and in a couple of cases had sex with — Homo sapiens, but he does so in such an entertaining and engaging fashion that the book never feels pedantic.
Over the last 150 years genetics has developed in part at the hands of fallible and occasionally bigoted human beings. Here too, and especially on questions of race and racism, Rutherford does not avert his gaze. While Charles Darwin became a fervent abolitionist, his half cousin, the brilliant and arrogant Francis Galton, became something else. In addition to world-changing statistical concepts (correlation, regression toward the mean), Galton came up with the term “eugenics” and then practiced what he preached, hoping, for example, to keep those without superior ability or inheritance from procreating. He also coined the phrase “Nature versus nurture,” which, Rutherford reminds us, “has plagued geneticists ever since.”