Friday Reviews: Under The Banner Of Heaven by Jon Krakauer; Neanderthal Man: The Search For Lost Genomes by Svante Paabo

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon KrakauerUnder the Banner of Heaven

Jon Krakauer

In 1984, two brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, murdered their sister-in-law and her infant daughter. The reason? Brenda Lafferty had interfered with their brother’s destiny in the one true faith. The Lafferty brothers were practicing polygamists and part of the a fundamentalist Mormon sect. In Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer uses this horrific crime as a jumping off point to look at extreme religious faith through the lens of the complex Mormon religion that dominates Utah and surrounding states.

There is not one Mormon church. There are several. The best known is that institution, the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints (LDS for short), the organization founded by Joseph Smith in 1831. Krakauer depicts the history of the church, juxtaposing it with events in the fundamentalist sects. What caused the schism?

The controversial doctrine of polygamy.

Krakauer contrasts the mainline LDS church with the fundamentalist sects. He spends little time on the moderate polygamist sect, the Apostolic United Brethren, depicted in Sister Wives and My Five Wives and the basis for the HBO series Big Love. Instead, the focus is on the more fanatical Fundamentalist LDS (or FLDS). The sect and its splinter groups have made news over the past few decades with stories of kidnapping, of child brides, incest and Jim Jones-like leadership over followers in their own virtual city-state, Colorado City, Arizona. Whereas the AUB practices a rather benign form of polygamy (Women, for instance, are “inspired” to choose their husbands rather than given to men in arranged marriages.), the FLDS version underscores why the mainline LDS church is highly unlikely to ever reinstitute polygamy even if the practice is ever legalized. The ban not only allowed Utah to become a state, but many in church leadership in the 1890’s were horrified by the abuses that came with the doctrine.

Warren Jeffs in particular is painted almost as a sociopathic monster. The words are not Krakauer’s, who paints fascinating portraits of the charismatic Joseph Smith and the almost Jeffersonian Brigham Young. Some FLDS members themselves in interviews condemn Jeffs for his lust for power.

Krakauer describes his book as an examination about extremism in religious faith, and that it is. He even shows a court case where an expert successfully drew a line between faith and insanity. And once you see that line, insanity becomes all the more frightening to behold.

Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante PaaboNeanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes

Svante Paabo

Part memoir, part history of one of the most groundbreaking research projects in modern paleontology, Swedish geneticist Svante Paabo recounts the thirty-year journey that led to sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal. He relates how his career began as a medical student with a side trip into Egyptology to fulfill his research requirements. During another research project, Paabo discovered how to sequence genes from mummies. His zeal for this sort of work led him to several prestigious post-doctoral fellowships and research positions. Over the years, someone asked him to see if they could retrieve DNA from the bones of a Neanderthal. They did. Eventually, this led to retrieving and sequencing nuclear DNA, the DNA that actually designs who you are, from 40,000-year-old remains. The research even turned up yet another recent species of human, found quite by accident. Perhaps the biggest discovery, however, was that the Neanderthals did not go completely extinct. They were, in fact, absorbed into the populations of modern humans living in Europe and Asia, fragments of their DNA surviving to this day. Maybe one of your ancestors was a Neanderthal. Bet that would make for some awkward Thanksgiving dinners.

Paabo laces his long technical explanations of how DNA fragments are examined, how they function, and how they almost always are contaminated with tales of his personal life, the impact of global politics on international research projects, and, of course, all the fragile egos, academic maneuverings, and media management that goes into an otherwise dry subject. If Paabo had stuck with the technical details, one’s eyes would cross as the more arcane details of microbiology are not the stuff of a riveting tale. Coupled with personal accounts and the more human aspects of such work, Paabo’s tale becomes quite engaging. But perhaps his greatest achievement in this book is making the Neanderthals human. While he doesn’t describe the day-to-day lives of these people, by explaining how their DNA is mostly identical to humans, he reminds us that we once were not only a people of many races as we are now, but of multiple species.

That’s mind blowing.