Thursday, February 20, 2014

Book Review: DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America by Bryan Sykes

DNA USA, by Bryan Sykes, is the next book in my genetic reading pile.  It's a lot bigger than the others, and some of it is worth the extra heft.  The book is about Sykes' attempt to follow up a project mapping the genetics of Britain with a project mapping the genetic history of the United States.  It's divided into three parts:  a review of the science and the history of the science, a narrative about the "road trip" he took while working on the project, and a very quick review of the results.

The good:  The first section of the book is very interesting.  There's a lot more here about Native American and African-American deep genetic history than I've seen in the other books I've read, and it's very easy to understand.  Sykes writes just enough about his British projects to ground the reader and give a sense of why the USA version of this project would be hard.  There's also some good history of the relationships between Native Americans and genetics research, and African Americans and medical researchers, that shows why large segments of the US community might not find DNA testing to be a good thing, and might justifiably consider it a very bad thing.  And, finally, some of the results he gets, placed in context with the results of other studies, illustrate some very interesting points about race in America.

The bad: The second section is a drag.  Sykes can't seem to decide whether it's a story about taking a road trip with his son, who's about to start college, or a story about how depressing Indian reservations are, or a description of a genetics project.  As a result, it mostly fails in every respect.  In the first case, he seems to have missed the fact that the trips in the great road trip movies he keeps referencing were, in general, taken by car, not by train.  Descriptions of train stations do not a great road trip story make, even if he tells us what's on his son's iPod. Second, while it's useful to learn about the complicated and messed up history of Native Americans and genetics research, it's not really interesting to read about tours he took in which he neither discusses genetics research nor conducts any while on Native reservations.  And finally, after making a nicely convincing case in the first section about how hard a genetics study would be in the US, he does what couldn't even be called a half-assed job of gathering samples -- he, for example, blows off visiting the entire South after gathering a couple of samples from some people from Atlanta that he meets in a hotel bar in San Francisco.  The whole second section is self-indulgent and slow.  And, since he doesn't have very many samples and he's wasted a ton of pages in the second section, the third section feels both rushed and incomplete.

Unfortunately, I can't recommend that you just read the first section and skip the other two, because he buries some very interesting things in with the tedious.  Skimming is your friend, here.

My takeaways:  I need to investigate African Ancestry, a DNA testing company; I wonder how it compares to FamilyTreeDNA, 23andMe, and  I need to read up on some of the ethics issues involved in Native American and African American DNA testing and make sure they get covered in our DNA SIG meetings at the library.

...And I should never invite Bryan Sykes and Spencer Wells to the same party.  Although it's covered in pretty language, both of them say some pretty nasty things about each other in their books.

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