‘The Invisible History of the Human Race’ by Christine Kenneally
Black Inc.; $29.99
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Our ancestors are always with us. It is precisely this enduring if elusive presence, inscribed in our genetic inheritance and manifested in sometimes less rational aspects of humanity, that interests Christine Kenneally.
Like many of us at some point in our life, Kenneally is preoccupied by her family tree and its meaning. It is vast and sprawling, with unfathomable roots, and never stops growing.
Thanks to modern information technology, its mining of personal data and advances in genetics, we are able to piece together the story of human existence on the planet. At the same time as we understand more about how physical traits are replicated over millennia, researchers are becoming increasingly aware of the extent to which ideas and feelings also are passed down the generations within families, communities, cultures and ethnic groups.
One of the topics Kenneally considers is ancient prejudice: how negative attitudes towards certain groups appear to have origins in the distant past yet can survive and even at times undergo a resurgence despite being wholly irrational.
In early agrarian societies, for instance, women may not have had the upper body strength to wield a plough, and so a division of labour along gender lines may have made some practical sense then. But Kenneally cites research that has found that even today there is “greater inequality and women [are] less common in the workforce” among individuals whose ancestors used a plough – even if they themselves had never used one.
In some cases, the basis of the prejudice itself may be irrational. The persistence of anti-Semitism in certain parts of Germany, for instance, can be traced as far back as Jews being blamed in the 14th century for the catastrophic bubonic plague.
Family history today is an industry of staggering global proportions, but why do so many people take such an obsessive interest in, and indeed feel pride or shame about, their distant forebears? As the author hints, the past is one place where we will surely find what we are looking for in the present.
Kenneally’s first book, The First Word, traced the origins of language. With her second study of what makes us human, Kenneally again proves herself to be one of the most original, inclusive and engaging contemporary thinkers we have.
This is one, quite literally, for all the family.
Simon Caterson is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and the author of Hoax Nation: Australian Fakes and Frauds from Plato to Norma Khouri.