Genealogy Studies Program

A Reflection on Race: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes

Does “race” exist?

According to geneticist Adam Rutherford, author of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes, geneticists are only beginning to discover how closely interrelated we all are.

In an interview last month with Kara Miller of Innovation Hub, Rutherford discussed a recent study that found the origin of variation in pigmentation predated Homo sapiens by several hundred thousand years, meaning our earliest human ancestors—with the full spectrum of skin tones—may have all been living in Africa at one point in history. This spells bad news for those who argue for racial purity and illustrates how genetics goes beyond cultural and political identities.

Of course, Rutherford understands that the study of genetics doesn’t reflect our experiences of identifying others in relation to ourselves. He gives the example of a man from Ethiopia and a man from Uganda and points out that, although we would be quick to see them as being African, and genetically quite similar, they may be more different to one another than one of them might be to a European, or a person from India, stating that, “[…] evolution is quite deceptive in showing us physical characteristics which we use as identifiers […] when in fact they are totally misrepresentative of the total difference that we see in our genomes.”

Another recent genetic discovery shows that with the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, scientists have learned that Homo sapiens from East and North Africa experienced “gene flow events” (an elegant euphemism) with European Neanderthals… and so we now know that all Europeans have Neanderthal DNA.

Rutherford, who has been practicing science for more than 25 years, claims that he has never come across a field which has been in “such perpetual revolution in the last five years as the human story.”

And these human stories of our evolution are precisely why Rutherford finds the idea of “race” to be irrelevant and nonexistent, and our human “family tree” resembling more of a “family web”—very different from the way we typically comprehend our ancestry.

Rutherford explains: “If you keep doubling the number of ancestors you’ve got up your family tree, then that number gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and if it remains completely true, you go back a thousand years and you’ve got more than a trillion ancestors. Now, there haven’t been a trillion people, so you’ve got to cram the number of people in your family tree at a point in time into the number of people who were alive at that time, and what that means that our family trees collapse and they become massive webs more than those branching trees that we think of […] and positions on your family tree begin to be occupied by the same people.”

The complete human story is still not fully understood by geneticists, whom Rutherford claims are only just beginning to go beyond the broader picture and dig into the details of who we are, and, as Rutherford emphatically declares, “my Lord, genetics is all about the details.”


Filippino, Marc. “The Human Story Behind Our Genes.” WGBH News, 14 Dec. 2017,

Note: The information presented in this article is not covered in the online Genealogical Essentials course or the online Certificate Program in Genealogical Research.