Science Book a Day Interviews Christine Kenneally

InvisibleAuthorPhotoBlogSpecial thanks to Christine Kenneally for answering 5 questions about her recently featured book – The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures

Christine Kenneally is an award-winning journalist and author who has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate, Time, New Scientist, The Monthly, and other publications. Before becoming a reporter, she received a Ph.D. in linguistics from Cambridge University and a B.A. (Hons) in English and Linguistics from Melbourne University.

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#1 – What was the impetus for The Invisible History of the Human Race?

Like most people, I have always been interested in where we come from and what gets passed down to us. Some years ago, I started looking into the genetic and historical research that might help us answer these questions. Officially, that was when The Invisible History of the Human Race began. In fact, as I began reporting, I realized that the real impetus occurred a long time ago. When I was 8, my teacher explained what a family tree was and asked us to go home and create one. I was excited to share the project with my parents but they were startled by the request, which felt like an invasion of privacy. It was an intense moment and it kicked off many questions for me about how information does and doesn’t get passed down. Many years later, my parents explained that the man I thought was my father’s father was actually my father’s grandfather. My dad didn’t know who his father was.

This, I realized, was why the questions of the book were so intellectually interesting to me and also why they felt so emotionally important as well.

#2 – You write about how our history is written in our DNA. What did you find was the most intriguing piece of history you came across?

There were so many! Here’s one of my favorites: Over the last 10 years, we have become somewhat used to the idea that we can see the large arcs of history in living DNA, like the fact that humanity began in Africa, that a small group of humans left tens of thousands of years ago to become the ancestors of all non-Africans, and that people entered Australia around 50,000 years ago. But a very recent study by Australian researcher Stephen Leslie and his UK colleagues has completely changed the level of detail we thought we could see in the genome. The researchers looked at difference in the genomes of modern British people whose grandparents lived close by each other in particular regions. They found tiny but telling differences between people from relatively small geographic areas, many of which correlate with significant historic events, like the period after the Romans left Britain and plunged the Brits into the dark ages.

#3 – You write about cases of individuals descended from famous people, but it turns out that they weren’t. How do revelations like these affect people? What does it do to their sense of self?

I spoke to Thomas Robinson, an American who at one time was said to be a direct descendant of Genghis Kahn by a DNA company in England. When the announcement was made, the press went mad—they chased Robinson for days to get a quote. It was such a great story. Robinson was an accountant from Florida—how did the grandson, many-times-over, of the world’s great destroyer end up in such a sensible career? Not too long after the announcement, another company showed that Robinson was in fact not the son of a son of a son of Genghis Kahn. Mistakes like that are much less likely now, and the resolution we have gets clearer every day. Robinson himself was completely good-humored about the whole thing.

In another more serious case, a family in the US believed they were descended from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. When DNA evidence in the late 90s proved that the President and the slave did in fact have children together, it also showed that this particular family was not descended from them. It was a distressing revelation that some family members still refuse to believe. Yet it doesn’t really change the history of that family—they were a group of extraordinary people whose common ancestor was enslaved yet whose descendants rose to become important leaders in their community.

#4 – You write about a range of different topics – psychology, genealogy, history (and more). How did you get your head around these topics? How long did you spend writing this book?

It took at least four years and it was a challenge to make the pieces fit. I knew in my gut that they should fit, but with writing you have to get there the long way round. Some days the strain was palpable. I would sit at my desk and wonder if I’d had a silent stroke.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

I’m working as a contributing editor for the Investigations unit of BuzzFeed News. I can’t talk about my story yet but I can say that working for BuzzFeed is a thrilling ride. Not only are they serious about supporting significant longform journalism, but they are changing all journalism as we know it­­­—watching the world’s newest media juggernaut from the inside has been an extraordinary education.

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