I have known of National Geographic’s genome project for years, so when I learned of this companion book, I bought it immediately. Working my way through the first few pages, I got a bit alarmed. Just between us, I all but royally flunked every science class I ever took from Grade 3 onward, and this book was giving me that familiar brain-dead feeling I always got in science class. Still, I was determined to slug my way through, and very soon, something almost miraculous happened. Spencer Wells was taking me back in time to the dawn of man using science, and I was hooked like a fish on bait. When I finished The Journey of Man, three overall impression stayed with me.
If you are a history fanatic, like me, this book is a must-read. In a very methodical way, Spencer lays out the work of anthropological scientists before him, highlighting the important discoveries regarding man’s origins and way of life. Then, he lays out his own work using DNA samples of men the world over to determine where man began and how, when, and why the four corners of the earth became populated. His work takes the reader hurtling back through time to that first African man who father all humanity 60,000 years ago, showing us where all humans surely came from and how they lived. Then, in a clear methodical way, Spencer charts our journey out of Africa, making educated guesses on the possible reasons for the exodus, the means used, and the destinations. All the while, he employs DNA markers to link us, to distinguish us, and to chart each ethnic/racial group’s particular journey. The ride is simply fascinating.
To be sure, the work is peppered with scientific data, which was sometimes off-putting for me. Still, Spencer uses many analogies to make the science more accessible to lay people. For instance, at one point, he explains how modern man’s looks changed from the looks of the first man by using a soup analogy. In the beginning, there is one soup recipe, and everyone makes it the same way. Then, a woman marries and moves away to her husband’s town. She cannot make soup the same way because some ingredients are unavailable, so the soup is slightly altered. Her sister also moves. She does have the ingredients for the original soup, but her husband is used to a certain spice, so she adds it. Thus, the soup changes through the generations, but there is still a link among the soups and back to the original soup. The same goes for man. This helpful explanation is just one of many the author uses to promote understanding, which I really appreciated. Also, the truth is that one can always do as I did when some of the scientific data got too tough or boring (both in school and this book)…skip it. :)
The last impression I took away from the book doesn't really pertain to it per se, but to education. Somewhere while reading, it struck me that if the boring science I’d sat through in school had been linked to such fascinating real-life applications and implications, I and many more students might have pursued scientific careers. Okay, that’s a downright lie. NOTHING on God’s green earth could have lassoed me into science. Nonetheless, the U.S. needs scientists, and fewer and fewer students study it, so we need to find ways to engage and capture those students who have an aptitude for it. Spencer’s work and more works like it which allow children to see how science can lead them to ideas/topics that DO interest them is a piece of this puzzle. Developing science programs that show children what fascinating things science can show us (even if the process itself is not fascinating) should be our goal.
In the end, I so thoroughly enjoyed this book and appreciated the mountain of work that went into it that it is definitely worth the highest rating possible.