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A Reader's Guide


Mapping Human History

Questions for Discussion

Questions to think about and answer before reading the book:

What is race? What is ethnicity? What is nationality?
What race are you? What ethnicity are you? What nationality are you?
What do your answers to these questions mean to you personally?
What role does race play in your life? Why do you think race plays this role?

Questions to think about while reading specific sections of the book:

Introduction and Chapter 1: The End of Evolution

At various points in the book Olson makes very big claims (for example, "Every single one of the 6 billion people on the planet today is descended from the small group of anatomically modern humans who once lived in eastern Africa"). Some of these claims are in fact contentious, as the note on page 242 indicates. In writing about "the human pageant" as a "saga of immense grandeur" does Olson oversimplify his case?

Chapter 2: Individuals and Groups

What are the scientific grounds Olson provides for arguing that race has no basis in biology, and what are the social grounds he provides for arguing that racial thinking has been a "misadventure"?

Chapter 3: The African Diaspora and the Genetic Unity of Modern Humans

Olson often uses anecdotes drawn from contemporary experience. How do these anecdotes advance his arguments? Does his use of such techniques water down the authority of the arguments he makes based on science? Or does his use of them help to clarify the human significance of the science?

Chapter 4: Encounters with the Other

What evidence does the author present in order to argue that there is no genetic evidence of mating between modern humans and Neandertals? How is this different from saying that there is evidence of no mating between modern humans and Neandertals? We cannot, of course, know everything about how Neandertals lived. In this chapter, can you distinguish between what is actually known (from genetic or archaeological evidence) and what is inferred from this evidence? Do you agree with these inferences, given this evidence?

Chapter 5: Agriculture, Civilization, and the Emergence of Ethnicity

What changes occurred in the world that seem to be associated with the development of agriculture? What effect did the development of agriculture have on human populations?

Chapter 6: Godís People

What does it mean to be Jewish? Is being Jewish determined by genetics? Environment? Both?

Chapter 7: The Great Migration

What logical interpretations of the genetic, fossil, and especially archaeological evidence does Olson use to support his model of the dispersal of modern humans to Asia and Australia?

Chapter 8: Genes and Language

Olson says, "This chapter is the most speculative in this book" (p. 139). Why would he say this?

Chapter 9: Who are the Europeans?

Olson claims that monuments such as Stonehenge may indicate that man underwent a fundamental change of lifestyle. What are his supporting arguments? What are some opposing arguments?

According to Olson, how has modern genetics discredited the notion that the modern humans of Europe are biologically more advanced than the modern humans living in other areas of the world?

Chapter 10: Immigration and the Future of Europe

How is the face of Europe changing? Why is it changing?

The official policy of the French government toward immigration is that of assimilation. What forces favor this policy, and what forces work against it?

Chapter 12: The Burden of Knowledge

Some Native American peoples have been reluctant to participate in the Human Genome Diversity Project. Why? What are the main ethical concerns about gathering knowledge on the genetic differences among various groups of people?

Chapter 13: The End of Race

Olson predicts that global rates of intermarriage will increase. As this happens, it will become increasingly harder to identify a person as belonging to a single racial category. But he doesn't think this will eliminate racial tensions. Why?

Questions to think about and answer after reading the book:

1. Is this book a work of natural science, social science, or journalism? Explain and support your answer.

2. If you were a geneticist or an anthropologist, what questions about human history would you want to answer, having read this book?

3. How does Olson use anatomical and genetic evidence to argue for the total replacement of archaic peoples by modern humans? How might modern humans have replaced the archaic ones who had been living and adapting to local conditions for hundreds of thousands of years?

4. Olson says, "As is always the case with genetics and history, we interpret the past selectively, picking out those features that accord with our worldviews" (p. 206). What does this book tell us about the way scientific knowledge develops over time? Is Olson correct in thinking that the use of genetic data to understand human history always also involves subjective interpretation?

5. Currently, the U.S. census asks people to classify themselves as members of racial groups. Do you think it is important for our government to collect such data? Why or why not?

6. What is racism? Why does it exist? How can we explain the existence of "us" and "them" divisions?

7. Before reading this book, we asked these questions:
What is race? What is ethnicity? What is nationality?
What race are you? What ethnicity are you? What nationality are you?
What do your answers to these questions mean to you personally?
What role does race play in your life? Why do you think race plays this role?

Are your answers to these questions different now? Why or why not?


About the Author

Steve Olson, is a science journalist, graduated with a BA in physics from Yale University in 1978 and currently lives in Washington, D.C. He has worked for the National Academy of Sciences, the White House Office of Science and Technology, and the Institute for Genomic Research. He is the author of several books, including Shaping the Future and Biotechnology, and has written for the Atlantic Monthly, Science, and other magazines. His writing has earned him a reputation for cracking the often mystifying code of biological science for the lay reader.

Mapping Human History, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 2002, is an ambitious overview of 150,000 years of human history. Olson uses new findings in genetics to explore the origins of mankind. Sweeping across the continents, he begins with an explication of our African origins and tracks the migration patterns of our forefathers around the globe. His conclusions often defy accepted thinking and raise controversial questions about the future of humanity.


Technical Terms

Below is a list of a few technical terms used in the book which you may want to become familiar with. Next to each term is the page where Olson discusses it.

Archaic humans (3)
Chromosome (14)
Coalescence (26)
DNA (16)
Evolution (19-20)
Evolutionary dead-end (3)
Genus (19)
Haplotype (35)
Mitochondria (24)
Mutation (35)
Reproductive isolating mechanisms (22)
Species (19)
Speciation (21)


Prepared by the faculty of the College of Charleston.



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