Interview with 2018 NBCC Non-Fiction Award Finalist Dr. Adam Rutherford

May 26, 2018

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A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (W&N) is a historical exploration of the evolution of Homo sapiens through genomics. In it, Rutherford asks his reader to consider how much we still don’t know about human genes and the ways in which with each genetic discovery, our history is being rewritten.

What is it about genetics that, initially, made you interested in studying it?
Genetics underwrites all biology. It is the language the evolution is written in, and genes are the units that natural selection operates on. So DNA is the foundation from which all biology is built. That’s why it’s important, but it’s also fascinating how misunderstood genetics is. Humans seem primed to search for reasons why we are the way we are, and we turn to genes for answers, when at best they provide probabilities. So my interest was at first basic biology, and became cultural.

Why is the story of humankind, told from a genetics point of view, especially important right now?
Two technical reasons, which have spawned a new way of thinking, which I think is problematic. The first is that we are just better at understanding genes and DNA, and how that code gets turned into behavior. The second is exactly that again but coupled with a newfound ability to pull DNA out of the dead. This means that this map of human history is accessible in the living and the dead, which is utterly transforming our understanding of the human story.

I love the idea that genes are meant to be read as epic poems with historical context, and not as instruction manuals. This metaphor helped me synthesize a lot of the science in the book. How did this tool serve you in organizing your thoughts, dramatizing the text and breaking down complex information?
It did! Maps and manuals have direction and purpose to them, whereas epic poems can meander, and wind their way around, having mutated over many years and through many authors, and end up open to interpretation. I wanted the prose to reflect that, with side-notes and footnotes and stories that deviate from the narrative. I don’t wish to stretch this analogy too far, because it was simply elegant rather than anything else, but genes are not destiny, they are instructions or blueprints, and I think this language does not help us to recognize the fundamentally probabilistic nature of our genes.

What was your initial inspiration behind the book, and who was your intended audience?
Tell stories. There’s enough sex, death, murder, warfare, migration, more sex, plague and disease in the journey of how we got here to fill a thousand books. I wanted to tell the stories of our pasts that are enlightened by this new source text, which is DNA. It’s only been available to us for a few years now, but carries the history of our species. That’s a rich seam to mine. The audience is anyone who likes stories. I don’t like to be prescriptive about who should read what. If you can follow it and it makes you think, and maybe chuckle, then it’s for you. It does contain at least one compound swear word though.

Although, your book is heavily research based, how much of it was revealed to you during the writing process?  What did this balance look like, in terms of outline versus flow? And how did you decide on what to keep and leave out?
This may sound incredibly pretentious, but I write, and it only becomes clear to me what the point is about three quarters of the way through any particular section. I start with a story, one that says something specific about the idea I’m trying to explore, and then I let it take me wherever it leads. You have to be restrained or else you can lose focus, or get distracted by a squirrel. Fiction writers sometimes say that they don’t know what their characters are going to do next, and they are surprised when it happens. I feel like that sometimes in my writing.

What from your scientific background helps you as a writer? What advice would you give to writers who explore family histories, and intergenerational stories? What’s a good tactic to get over missing links, the messiness of memory, and evolving findings?
I love learning about science, and telling people about discoveries new and old. But I’m also very keen to shift the perception of science away from the idea that it is static, or a bank of facts. We don’t know much more than we do, and finding new things opens more doors. Some of it is as definitive as science can get, like the basic principles of evolution and genetics, but so much of it is a moving target. ‘We don’t know’ is a phrase that all scientists should say frequently, hopefully followed by ‘but I know how to find out.’ I want to encourage people to think about risk and probability, and the value of ignorance. As Darwin said: ‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.’

As a Bulgarian, I found the information about the Roma Gypsy’s particularly interesting. And wondered how genetics could play a more outspoken role in stopping racism and discrimination?
Blagodarya! One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was that there is a massive gulf between what geneticists think, and what many people in the rest of society think, especially when it comes to ideas like race. As a science communicator and geneticist, that is on me. Race is a concept that has little scientific validity, uncontroversial-ly within science, but I found that this was not a view that was necessarily shared outside of science. The arguments presented might help us all think about race, and identity politics and our biology. That is a conversation that needs to continue in the glare of the sun.

While reading, I drew many parallels between science, genetics and writing. One of the most interesting was the concept of change – that the process of living means constantly evolving. How did you deal with this idea, either broadly or specifically, in publishing a piece of nonfiction? And how did you get to a resolution that was satisfying to you as both a scientist and author?
Because this field is moving so quickly, it was a colossal pain in the arse, especially in the final year of writing, because I was constantly rewriting sections based on new papers. But that’s all in the game. There’s plenty of history in the book, but it’s as up-to-date as book publishing allows. And I’ll be updating it for years.

Have you ever thought about turning this book into an educational television series on the story human evolution?
Many times. I’ve presented a few TV series for the BBC, and we’ve been thinking hard about which stories to tell on TV, and how to tell them. Television is a reductive medium, and one of the themes of the book is the interconnectedness and messiness of the human story. So we have to work out how to extract single threads that work on TV, without simplifying a story that revels in complexity.

What are you working on these days?
By the time these prizes have passed, I will have finished The Book of Humans. It follows on from A Brief History, and is the story of the conundrum of our existence: how we are animals, and how we separated ourselves from other animals. Sex for fun, tools, thought, art, culture, war, violence, things that we once thought were uniquely human, but are in fact found amongst other animals.

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