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Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through Our Genes Hardcover – May 15, 2002

ISBN-13: 004-6442091572 ISBN-10: 0618091572 Edition: 1st
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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Thanks to recent discoveries in genetics, explains science journalist Olson, we're learning about human history before any history was written down.

Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


"Olson raises the level of discourse to a new high, assembling powerful evidence to support the no-races hypothesis." Kirkus Reviews

"An engaging and fast-paced look at a subject that has profound implications for our everyday lives." Publishers Weekly

"An instructive overview of human history." Boston Herald

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (May 15, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618091572
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618091577
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #827,672 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Steve Olson is an award-winning science writer. He is the author of Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins, which was one of five finalists for the 2002 National Book Award for Nonfiction. A consultant writer for the National Academy of Sciences as well as for other organizations, Olson has also written for such publications as the Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post, Scientific American, and Wired.

Customer Reviews

3.5 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

169 of 208 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on June 28, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Using ever improving molecular techniques, population geneticists study the history of extended families that are inbred to some degree. In other words, they trace the genealogies of racial groups. It's an inherently fascinating subject, and science journalist Steve Olson introduces it adequately in his new book, Mapping Human History. Written in the breezy style of a National Geographic travel-log, Olson's book is a quick read, but a little too superficial to be intellectually satisfying. Still, it's not a bad overview of an important subject.
It would be better, though, without the recurrent political sermonizing. Unfortunately for population geneticists, their subject matter-race-is vastly unfashionable. So, the dean of the field, Stanford's great L.L. Cavalli-Sforza long ago developed the transparent subterfuge of defining the word "race" in the most ludicrous straw-man terms possible-as the classification of the human race into absolutely separate, never-overlapping, mutually exclusive categories. (Never specified is exactly who today believes such a thing: the Grand Kleagle's retarded brother, perhaps?) This straw-man definition allows him to deny that he's studying race, since by his definition "race" is impossible. Still, it allows Cavalli-Sforza to get back to work without being crucified for political incorrectness, so we shouldn't hold it against him.
Unfortunately, Olson never seems to grasp that this is just pro forma boilerplate. In his book, Olson stops every few pages to tell you that there are no races that have been absolutely isolated genetically since the beginning of time because-you will be shocked, shocked to learn this-humans have been known to outbreed.
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36 of 43 people found the following review helpful By J.C. Hall on May 22, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Mr Olson's book starts out extremely well, but sags after a few chapters. The initial segments on mitonchondrial DNA and our genetics is probably the most readable and understandable treatment that I have seen. About halfway through the book, however, Olson stops trying to trace human migration and development. His emphasis becomes avoiding rascism. At this point, the history and science dwindles away and the emphasis becomes how intermixed our gene pools are. It was almost as if his underlying motivation was a desire to use science to prove a political position. It became rather pedantic at this point. I was very disappointed after the strong start that the book made.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 8, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This book presents a very good overview of an interesting subject. For those who understand only basic genetics, like me, the author presents the subject matter in a manner that is easy to understand. Maybe a little too easy. I found myself wanting to gain a deeper understanding of the topic than is provided here. The author argues convincingly that the term "race" really has no real meaning any more, but he sermonizes on this topic far too much. He also drifts into related topics, like linguistics, for which he seems to have little expertise. And some of the later chapters, particularly the one on Hawaii, seems to have little to do with the subject matter except to provide a forum for more sermonizing. Aside from these distractions, I enjoyed most of the book, particularly the early chapters, and the knowledge I learned from the book has provided me with a different perspective on human history, and a better understanding of where we came from.
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86 of 111 people found the following review helpful By William Holmes VINE VOICE on June 15, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Olson's "Mapping Human History" is written in a clear, easy to understand style that makes mitochondira, haplotypes and other archana of modern genetics fairly understandable to the lay reader.
Olson explains why most geneticists believe that modern humans, no matter how different they may seem, are biologically very similar. There is no room in this book for theories about how one "race" is somehow better than another--or even for the idea that the term "race" has any meaning at all. Our cultures may have divided us, but our DNA betrays the fact that we are all descended from a small group of modern humans who lived in eastern Africa about 100,000 years ago. There simply hasn't been enough time to make us dramatically different from each other, despite what racists would have us believe.
The theory that modern humans originated in Africa fairly recently and then spread throughout the world is still, of course, hotly debated. A number of reputable scientists favor the multiregional hypothesis, which claims that modern humans evolved in various places around the world from archaic populations already living in those regions. The mutliregional hypothesis implies that the differences between modern groups are deeply rooted in the very distant past. Olson clearly disagrees with that view, and he does a good job of presenting the genetic evidence that points to a more recent African origin (sometimes called the "Out of Africa II" hypothesis).
In the course of doing so, Olson touches on many interesting points. A few of the more striking were these:
First, Olson describes recent DNA research indicating that Neanderthals were in fact a different species from our own.
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