Skip to main content

The Human Story – Charles Lockwood ***

It’s not totally clear at first glance just what kind of book this is. The combination of large format and a thin content (just over 100 pages) with lavish colour illustrations gives the impression of a children’s book, but the text isn’t particularly aimed at children. It reads well, but without the narrative drive of a good popular science book – in some ways it’s more like a good introductory text book – but don’t be put off by this, as it is readable, with good content.
Broadly, the book divides into five sections – the earliest hominins, Australopithecus, Paranthropus, Early Homo and Later Homo (including, of course, us). If this isn’t a subject you’ve followed, it’s interesting to see just what a range of pre-humans there are now, though inevitably there is still dispute over what’s what, especially when (for instance) you are trying to decide if a creature walked upright based solely on its skull. There’s plenty of absorbing detail to be got out of teeth, too – which might come as a surprise.
Some of the later homo stuff is particularly interesting – we’ve got the ‘hobbit’ Homo floresiensis in there, and suggestions that, for example, Neanderthals were much closer to Homo sapiens than many of us might think – perhaps just a variant rather than a truly separate species.
Just occasionally it can get a little samey, going through bone after bone – but I never found myself inclined to give up on a subject I really hadn’t read much about before. This is very much an introduction, so anyone who is well read in the subject won’t find a lot that’s new. I’m not sure it lives up to all of its subtitle Where we came from and how we evolved. It certainly does the first part, but the ‘how’ of our evolution isn’t as obvious, unless you interpret this to mean what stages our ancestors went through. Even so it largely does what it says on the cover in an effective and well-illustrated fashion.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…