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Good Reads  Evolutionary Biology  Human Evolution & Anthropology

Ancestors in Our Genome The New Science of Human Evolution

Popular Science SPECIAL OFFER
By: Eugene E Harris(Author)
226 pages, 45 b/w illustrations
A fairly technical work that is required reading if you want to understand what genomics can do for you and the story of your origins.
Ancestors in Our Genome
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  • Backlist Bargains Ancestors in Our Genome ISBN: 9780199978038 Hardback Jan 2015 Usually dispatched within 5 days
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About this book

In 2001, scientists were finally able to determine the full human genome sequence, and with the discovery began a genomic voyage back in time. Since then, we have sequenced the full genomes of many of mankind's primitive relatives at a remarkable rate. The genome of the common chimpanzee (2005), macaque (2007) and orangutan (2011) have already been identified, and the identification of other primate genomes is underway, including the bonobo, gorilla, and baboon. Researchers are beginning to unravel our full genetic history, comparing it with closely related species to answer age old questions about how and when we evolved. For the first time, we are finding our own ancestors in our genome and are thereby gleaning new information about our evolutionary past.

In Ancestors in Our Genome, geneticist Eugene Harris presents us with the complete and up-to-date account of the evolution of the human genome. Written from the perspective of population genetics, the book traces human origins back to their earliest source among our earliest human ancestors, and explains some of the challenging questions that scientists are currently attempting to answer. For example, what does the high level of discordance among the gene trees of humans and the African great apes tell us about our respective separations from our common ancestor? Was this process fast or slow, and when and why did it occur? How can we explain the fact that evolutionary relationships among copies of specific genes from individual primate species can differ from the evolutionary relationships of the species themselves? Harris draws upon extensive experience researching primate evolution in order to deliver a lively and thorough history of human evolution. Ancestors in Our Genome is the most complete discussion of our current understanding of the human genome available.

Watch a trailer below:



Chapter 1. The Trees Within the Forest: The Molecular Quest for Our Nearest Primate Relative
Chapter 2. Looks Can Be Deceiving: Evolution Does a Double-Take
Chapter 3. The Great Divorce: The Human Lineage Emerges
Chapter 4. A Population Crash: The Down and Upsides to It
Chapter 5. What Makes Us Human?: Searching the Genome for our Species-Wide Adaptations
Chapter 6. The Ongoing Evolutionary Journey: Human Adaptations Around the World
Chapter 7: Kissing Cousins: Clues from Ancient Genomes
Chapter 8. The Future of the Genome

Customer Reviews (1)

  • What genomics can do for you and your origin story
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 3 Jan 2019 Written for Hardback

    After I read and reviewed Who We Are and How We Got Here, I thought I knew about the changes to the story of human evolution based on studies of DNA. And given that Ancestors in Our Genome was published a few years before that book, I was curious what it could add to what I had been reading so far. As it turns out, a lot. As with my previous review, I should preface this one with the same warning that things are about to get complicated…

    Author Eugene E. Harris used to be an anthropologist of the old school, those that thought that the study of the anatomy of bones and fossils was the best instrument to understand our evolutionary past. With technology to study DNA still being relatively primitive, its power to reveal details about human history was somewhat limited until well into the 1990s. But Harris has been at the forefront of technological progress and has experienced first-hand what the study of genetic material can nowadays reveal.

    Ancestors in Our Genome fairly quickly becomes technical as it tackles the first big topic in the book: which great ape is our closest relative, the gorilla or the chimpanzee (and their close cousin the bonobo)? The reason the book becomes technical is that it has to explain the difference between species trees and gene trees. The former is the kind of family tree you will be familiar with: a branching diagram that shows how species are related. The latter is similar, but its resolution is far more fine-grained. Rather than showing relatedness based on evolving populations, it shows relatedness based on genes. And as the genome (i.e. the whole of an organism’s genetic material) consists of many genes (some 21,000 in humans), you can make many such gene trees for a single species. And these gene trees do not necessarily agree with each other, something that initially had researchers flummoxed as they started using this tool.

    If all this sounds complicated, well, that is because it is. Luckily, Harris includes many helpful illustrations to make his point, but this section will require your attention. It also sets the tone for the rest of the book. Genomics (the study of genomes) is a powerful tool, but it does away with simplistic explanations.

    Harris proceeds to describe how genomics has revealed traces of a population crash in our distant past (without invoking the controversial topic of catastrophic volcanic eruptions such as discussed in my review of When Humans Nearly Vanished), talking about effective population sizes and the relative contributions of random genetic drift and positive and negative selection. Another technical topic that benefits from helpful illustrations.

    A good example of genomics revealing a complicated story is the question of what genetic changes are responsible for such human traits as increased brain size, bipedalism, hand dexterity, language, etc. If you were still holding out hopes for researchers turning up a gene for, for example, increased brain size, I have to disappoint you. We share the same genes with many animals, and for a trait such as brain size and complexity it is not the absence or presence of genes that makes the difference, but rather how these genes are regulated by other genes. You might know that in humans the 21,000 genes that make us supposedly us make up only 1.5% of the approximately 3 billion letters of our DNA. The rest was initially branded as genetic dark matter or junk DNA (see Junk DNA). It turns out that at least part of this junk DNA contains regulatory DNA regions that, much like the dimmer-switch on a lamp, can up- or down-regulate genes (remembering that genes code for proteins, which are the actual biological workhorses in a cell). And that is part of what is responsible for above-mentioned human traits.

    And, as also highlighted in my last review of Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, many traits are not caused by one or a few genes of large effect, but are polygenic, i.e. influenced by many genes each having a small cumulative effect. Another complication is that the use of genomics to study human origins was initially done by analysing the Y-chromosome (inherited exclusively via the father) or mitochondrial DNA (exclusively inherited via the mother). The reason was that both these are small stretches of DNA with few genes, so they were manageable and inexpensive at a time when analysing genetic material was expensive and labour-intensive. But those days are gone and we can now routinely and cheaply analyse all genetic material of an individual. Harris describes several projects that are collecting thousands of genomes of representative groups of the human species. And analysing this material, which is arguably more comprehensive, is frequently telling a different story than previous analyses based on only mitochondrial or Y-chromosomal DNA.

    Finally, there is the topic of ancient DNA, the analysis of DNA recovered from archaeological remains. Harris discusses what it has revealed so far, including Pääbo’s work that showed that human DNA contains small amounts of Neanderthal DNA, suggesting we mated with each other (see also Neanderthal Man). But far more, he shares the excitement of the many new questions that are thrown up by this technique.

    In the end, Ancestors in Our Genome is a fairly technical work, but it has to be to do justice to the complexity of the topic. The time for simplistic just-so stories is well and truly over. Where Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here talked predominantly about ancient DNA revealing how our ancestors migrated and mixed with other groups, this book casts a wider net. What traces of past episodes of natural selection linger in our genes? How do we relate to our primate cousins? And especially, what new light can genomics shed on age-old questions that still keep anthropologists up at night? Harris does this with verve, answering some questions and throwing out many new ones. So, sure, pick up Reich’s work, but certainly read this book as well.
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Eugene Harris is a Research Affiliate of the Center for the Study of Human Origins in the Department of Anthropology at New York University. He is one of the leading experts in the genomic study of primate evolution. His early research, using modern DNA analyses to firmly establish an evolutionary tree of the African monkey group that includes baboons, mandrills and related monkeys, was influential in human evolution studies showing that anatomical features are unreliable for ascertaining the evolutionary relationships among early human fossils.

Popular Science SPECIAL OFFER
By: Eugene E Harris(Author)
226 pages, 45 b/w illustrations
A fairly technical work that is required reading if you want to understand what genomics can do for you and the story of your origins.
Media reviews

"[Harris] has written an excellent analysis of modern human evolution from a molecular evolution perspective. [...] This is the best book I've ever read on the subject of random genetic drift."
– Larry Moran, Professor Emeritus, Department of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto

"[...] a good overview of the state of the science regarding the genomics of human evolution."
– Bob Grant, Editor in Chief, The Scientist

"[...] readers looking for an up-to-date, clearly written, and well-illustrated tour through the dynamics of human evolution will find no better guide than this compelling volume."
BioScience, Kenneth R. Miller

"[O]n the whole this is a substantive, engaging, and worthwhile introduction to molecular anthropology for educated nonexperts."
– Richard A. Richards, Quarterly Review of Biology

"In the 'Age of Genomics,' this book is an absolute must-have for anyone interested in human evolution. In the most accessible manner, Eugene E. Harris enlightens how and why genomes represent such powerful evidence to understand our past. If you want to know why paleontologists and geneticists fight over evolutionary trees, whether chimpanzees and primitive hominins interbred after they split, how large the first human population was, or how in modern humans bad genes could become good genes, open Ancestors in Our Genome"
– Jean-Jacques Hublin, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

"It is a daunting and confusing task to make sense of the avalanche of genetic information that has recently become available. Fortunately, Harris's book is a concise and engaging explanation of what we have learned about human evolution from studying genomes. Harris clearly explains without jargon the basics of genetics and genomics, how and when humans evolved, and what about our genes make us different from our closest living and extinct relatives"
– Daniel Lieberman, Harvard University and author of The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease

"In a lucid and engaging style, Eugene Harris delivers a clear account of the latest insights in genomic studies that are giving humans a more comprehensive understanding of our evolutionary history, our place in nature, and where we may be headed"
– Donald Johanson, Arizona State University

"Ancestors in Our Genome tells the amazing story of human evolution as it has been revealed by the study of our DNA. Eugene Harris, a rare anthropologist who has studied the differences in the DNA of humans and other primates, has written a superb book about the latest discoveries comparing the DNA genomes of apes and humans-both living and fossilized [...] An enjoyable and wonderfully enlightening read"
– Jody Hey, Temple University and author of Genes, Categories, and Species

"Simply indispensable for any reader wishing to learn about the latest research on human origins"
Library Journal

"He [Harris] presents a sophisticated introduction to population genetics, explaining how gene data can be used to verify or dismiss competing hypotheses for how and when early humans moved out of Africa; the size and timing of the ancestral population that gave rise to both humans, and perhaps human ancestors, developed the ability to speak."
Publisher's Weekly

"This book reports how modern humans came to be by combining fossil and artifactual evidence with genetics to tell the story from when the human-chimpanzee split occurred. The subject is interesting, but the author’s repetitiveness and some sloppy use of terms detracts from the intended message."
– GrrlScientist, The Guardian blog, 28-11-2014

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