Christine Kenneally (born in Melbourne, Australia) is an Australian-American journalist who writes on science, language and culture. Trained as a linguist, she has written for the New York Times, the New Yorker, Slate, New Scientist, and Australia's Monthly, among other publications. She is a great-granddaughter of JJ Kenneally, an early popularizer of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly.
Her first book, The First Word (2007) was a L.A. Times book prize finalist and has been translated into Korean and Spanish. Her new book for Viking Penguin about genetic history will be released October 9, 2014.
Early life and education
She grew up in Melbourne, Australia and received an Honors BA in English and Linguistics from Melbourne University and completed a PhD in Linguistics at Cambridge University in England. At Cambridge she learned to row with the First and Third Trinity Boat Club, eventually rowing for the Cambridge University Women's Boat Club in the lightweight squad, participating in races on the Thames and against Oxford at Henley.
In the early 1990s, while at the University of Melbourne, she attended an introductory lecture in linguistics. When she asked the lecturer where language came from, the lecturer responded that linguists do not really explore that topic, or even ask the question, because there is no definitive way to answer it. This always stayed with Kenneally, and when she became a writer, the question became the basis of her first book.
After living in Iowa City for three-and-a-half years to spend time in the Midwest where her husband was born, they moved to New York City where she started writing for Feed, the Internet's first magazine, founded by Stephanie Syman and Steven Johnson, among other publications.
Her science articles include one about new field of epigenetics, the study of the forces that act on and effect alterations to DNA (not caused by change in sequencing) and another about the sensory abilities of animals that may have allowed them to have survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami for Salon. Her work for the New Yorker include a feature on hemispherectomy, the most radical form of brain surgery, where half of the brain is removed, and coverage of 2009's Black Saturday bushfires, the deadliest series of brushfires in Australia's history. Her work for the New York Times includes science articles centered around language's impact on perception, news and cultural reportage from Australia, and numerous book reviews—covering everything from essay books by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, to a book about proto-Indo-European language to a work of fiction for 9- to 12-year-olds set in Victorian England.
Her writing for the Monthly includes a feature on the Forgotten Australians, the 500,000 Australians that received institutionalized or other care in the 20th century, and another about questionable real estate news coverage. Her story about digital archiving for politics and arts publication won her Australian Society of Archivists' Mander Jones Award. Her work for the New Scientist includes an article about the debate about the impact of the Human Genome Project and the unspecialness of being human.
The First Word, 2007
Her first book, The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, is about the relatively new field of evolutionary linguistics starring such figures as cognitive scientist Philip Lieberman, primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, psychologists Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom, and evolutionary biologists Tecumseh Fitch and Marc Hauser. She interviewed all of these scientists for the book. Lieberman a former student of Noam Chomsky broke from his mentor's insistence that language could not be explained by evolutionary theory. Among other work, he studied the human brain to find support for the idea that language evolved from organs like the basal ganglia that human beings share with members of other species. Savage-Rumbaugh who taught a bonobo a toddler-level communication system, views language "as a communicative system that has roots in and shares features with the communicative capacity of apes." Pinker in turn upheld the idea that Chomsky's linguistic theories could work with theories of evolution such as natural selection, and he with then-graduate student Bloom published a paper which posited that language could be compared with other complex abilities like echolocation and stereopsis. This paper, which also challenged the ideas of Stephen Jay Gould, importantly allowed many more researchers to treat the study of the evolution and origin of human language seriously.
The First Word also details how Tecumseh Fitch found that the human larynx responsible for the enunciation of vowels and consonants, is something found in other animals such as koalas and lions, and that animals too have a complex inner life "without the benefit of syntax or words." Kenneally also details the work of University of Edinburgh linguist Simon Kirby, who with computer modeling, has suggested that language much like a computer virus, is self-evolving.
The New Yorker called the book an "accessible account" with the Scientific American describing its discourse as "elegant." William Grimes of the New York Times wrote that Kenneally "covers an enormous expanse of ground" and that she is "scrupulously fair-minded."
Awards and distinctions
- L.A. Times book prize finalist for The First Word, 2008
- Australian Society of Archivists' Mander Jones Award, 2010, for "Archive This" in the Monthly 
- Bushfire piece in the New Yorker included in The Best Australian Essays 2010 and the Best Australian Essays: A Ten Year Collection
- February 2011 Monthly article on lice included in The Best Australian Science Writing 2011
- Ned Kelly piece for the New York Times included in The Best Australian Science Writing 2012
She met her husband, Chris Baldwin, an American from Kansas, when they were both graduate students at Cambridge. When they left school, they agreed to spend a few years where he grew up, in the US Midwest, then a few years where she grew up, Melbourne. After a several years in Iowa for his job, they headed to New York City for her writing career. Eventually they returned to Melbourne to spend time there. Baldwin is a strategist in the health care industry, and together they have two children, and Kenneally has American citizenship through her marriage to Baldwin.
Her paternal great-grandfather was James Jerome Kenneally, aka JJ Kenneally, who wrote The Inner History of the Kelly Gang, the first book to make the case for Australia's famous bushranger, Ned Kelly at a time when the Irish in Australia were still treated with prejudice. The book inspired, among other things, famous Australian painter Sidney Nolan to create his iconic series of paintings of Kelly that now hang in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Kenneally herself wrote about the discovery of Kelly's skeleton for the New York Times in 2011, and the article was in included in The Best Australian Science Writing 2012.
- Press, Michelle (Aug 19, 2007). "Cyclic Universe--World of Words--Nuclear Terror". Scientific American.
- "The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures". Amazon.com. Retrieved March 7, 2014.
- Grimes, William (Aug 1, 2007). "Books of the Times: Language Evolution’s Slippery Tropes". New York Times.
- "Christine Kenneally". ChristineKenneally.com. Retrieved Dec 12, 2013.
- Kenneally, Christine, The First Word, New York: Penguin 2007, p. 7.
- Kenneally (June 20, 2011). "Goodbye, Genetic Blueprint: What the new field of epigenetics reveals about how DNA really works". Slate.
- Kenneally (Dec 30, 2004). "Surviving the Tsunami". Salon.
- Kenneally (July 3, 2006). "The Deepest Cut". The New Yorker.
- Kenneally (October 26, 2009). "The Inferno After the deadliest fires it has ever known, a nation reassesses.". The New Yorker.
- Kenneally (April 22, 2008). "When Language Can Hold the Answer". New York Times.
- Kenneally (Aug 31, 2011). "A Hero’s Legend and a Stolen Skull Rustle Up a DNA Drama". New York Times.
- "THE LYING STONES OF MARRAKECH Penultimate Reflections in Natural History". New York Times. September 24, 2000.
- "BOOKS IN BRIEF: NONFICTION". New York Times. October 5, 2003.
- "Giddyap". New York Times. March 2, 2008.
- "Here, There Be Monsters ‘How to Catch a Bogle,’ by Catherine Jinks". New York Times. Sep 13, 2013.
- Kenneally (August 2012). "The Forgotten Ones". The Monthly.
- Kenneally (Dec. 2010-Jan. 2011). "Archive This". The Monthly.
- "Mander Jones Awards Recipients 2006-2010". Australian Society of Archivists website. Retrieved Dec 13, 2013.
- Kenneally (July 21, 2010). "Mapping the Mountain of Human DNA". New Scientist.
- Kenneally (May 21, 2008). "So You Think Humans Are Unique?". The New Scientist.
- Eakin, Emily (Aug 12, 2007). "Look Who’s Talking". New York Times.
- Hoff, Erika (June 2008). "Book Review: Evolingo, or Evolutionary Psychology Meets Linguistics". Evolutionary Psychology. Retrieved Dec 13, 2013.
- "Los Angeles Times Book Prizes' Announces Kirsch Award Winner Maxine Hong Kingston: 28th Annual Literary Awards Finalists Announced for April 25th Presentation". Los Angeles Times. Feb 28, 2008. Retrieved Dec 15, 2013.
- Kenneally (February 2011). "Lousy Science". The Monthly.
- "The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang and their Pursuers". ChristineKenneally.com. Aug 31, 2011.
- Flanagan, Martin (March 28, 2003). "The many histories of the Kelly Gang". The Age.
- "A new home for Ned Kelly: The Ned Kelly series gallery". National Gallery of Australia website. Retrieved Dec 13, 2013. "The historical quotations displayed with the images in the Ned Kelly series were chosen by Sidney Nolan from the Royal Commission’s report of 1881 on the Victorian police force and the conduct of the hunt for the Kelly gang, newspapers of the day, and JJ Kenneally's The Inner History of the Kelly Gang, Melbourne, 1945."
- Sooke, Alastair (Sep 26, 2013). "Ned Kelly, Sidney Nolan and the story of Australian art". BBC.com. ""While working on the series, Nolan drew extensively upon records such as contemporary newspapers and JJ Kenneally’s The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang and Their Pursuers."