Why are we, from an evolutionary standpoint, the last man standing? This question fascinates archaeologists and anthropologists, and the dominant narrative is one of humans outcompeting other hominin lineages, driving them extinct. In the process, our evolutionary cousins, such as Neanderthals, always get the short end of the stick, being clumsier, dumber, or just generally inferior to us. In a book that is both a popular summary of his work and a critique of current thinking in archaeology, evolutionary biologist Clive Finlayson aims to redress this balance. Neanderthals, he says, were a lot smarter than we give them credit for, and one unexpected line of evidence comes from the birds that lived alongside them.
Having just read Barash’s Through a Glass Brightly: Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, it seemed logical to next read The Selfish Ape by biologist Nicholas P. Money. With the dustjacket calling the human being Homo narcissus, and the book “a refreshing response to common fantasies about the ascent of humanity“, these two clearly explore the same ideas, though one look at the cover suggests a darker tone. Money mostly takes the reader on a tour of human biology to show how we are little different from our fellow creatures, spicing up his writing with bleak observations. This one, my friend, sees through the glass darkly…
Science has brought us many advances and has deepened our understanding of the world around us, pushing back the boundaries of our ignorance. But as it has given, so it has taken. It has revealed a vast stage whose age is measured in incomprehensible epochs of Deep Time and whose dimensions stretch away into the frigid depths of an uncaring cosmos. Leaving us bereft of meaning and purpose, science has driven home how utterly insignificant we, the denizens of that Pale Blue Dot, ultimately are. Personally, I find this perspective deeply humbling and I know many scientists feel likewise, but I also realise we live in a bubble of our own.
The notion that we are unique, special, or – in the eyes of many still – God’s chosen children, persists. Luckily for us all, evolutionary biologist David P. Barash is here to take down our “species-wide narcissism” a peg or two (or three). But far from a self-congratulatory circle-jerk, Through a Glass Brightly is an erudite, life-affirming, and sometimes riotously amusing look at ourselves.
Do animals experience joy, grief, or shame? Most people will be quick to attribute all sorts of emotions to pets and other animals. But many biologists remain uncomfortable with this, well, touchy-feely subject. As scientists, we are trained to be objective, cool, and detached when making observations. Anthropomorphism – the attribution of human traits to animals – has traditionally been a big no-no. But the tide is turning, and well-known Dutch-American primatologist Frans de Waal is here to help it along. Mama’s Last Hug is a smart, opinionated, and insightful book arguing we have long overestimated humans and underestimated animals.
In popular discourse, the theory of evolution has become a victim of its own success, reduced to sound-bites such as “survival of the fittest”. Biologists will of course quickly point out that this is an oversimplification, though philosopher Daniel S. Milo takes things a few steps further. Good Enough is a thought-provoking critique of the dominance of adaptationist explanations. He argues that, while natural selection is important, it is not the only, possibly not even the default mechanism, in evolution. No, Milo claims, the mediocre also survive and thrive.
Over something as mundane as the tone of one’s skin humans have been inflicting intense grief and misery upon each other for centuries. And when biology and anthropology arose as scientific disciplines, they were brought into the fold to justify subjugation, exploitation, and slavery. With Superior: The Return of Race Science, journalist Angela Saini has written a combative and readable critique of race science that seems to be rearing its ugly head again. But in her fervour, does she take it too far to the other extreme?
When I picked up The Tales Teeth Tell, the first thing I thought was: “Another book on fossil teeth?” After reviewing Ungar’s Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins in 2017 I was worried this might be more of the same. Was I ever wrong! Professor in human evolutionary biology Tanya M. Smith here shows there is a lot more to say about human teeth and their evolution.
Origins asks one question: how did the Earth make us? More accurately, like a six-year-old whose curiosity cannot be sated, there lies a series of recursive “why” questions at the heart of this book. Astrobiologist and science communicator Lewis Dartnell takes a big history look at human evolution and especially civilization, seeing how far down the explanatory rabbit hole he can go. Time and again, he grounds his answers in geology and geography. You would be forgiven for thinking this sounds like what Jared Diamond attempted more than two decades ago, but calling it Diamond-redux would not do it justice.
Why, of all the species that have ever existed, have only us humans reached this unparalleled level of intelligence and social organisation? When a senior scientist such as Edward O. Wilson trains his mind on such a question, you hope to be in for a treat.
From Skeletor to the Danse Macabre, from Army of Darkness to ossuaries and holy relics – despite being largely hidden in life, skeletons are some of the most recognizable structures that nature has produced. Science writer Brian Switek has written a sizzling little book with Skeleton Keys* that delves into both the biological and cultural significance of human bones, showing them to be more than just a powerful reminder of death and mortality.