Skip to main content

The Humans who went Extinct – Clive Finlayson ****

There are two ways to write a really good popular science book. One, the more common of the two, is to be a good writer, who can take your reader into the story of the science, and to be able to portray complex scientific principles in a way that the general reader can understand. The other is to challenge long held beliefs about a scientific principle and make the reader think ‘Yes, this makes sense.’ This can feel really exciting for the reader, as if you are part of discovering something new. Clive Finlayson’s book falls into the second category, and unlike many challengers of scientific theories (for example, those who regularly take on Einstein), he has the authority to get away with it.
It’s probably worth getting the two big hurdles to appreciating the book out of the way first. It’s quite often tedious in its ponderous plod through different environments and reactions of proto-humans and others to those environments. These parts could have done with some heavy pruning to make them more readable. And the book is rather light on the central topic. After all, the title suggests we are going to be reading about Neanderthals – and though one chapter is mostly on them, and they crop up repeatedly through the rest of the text, there was a real feeling of waiting for the Neanderthal bit to come, and never quite reaching it. The subtitle is more illuminating – ‘Why Neanderthals died out and we survived’ – with emphasis on ‘why we survived.’
It’s a real shame about those boring bits, because Finlayson can be very engaging, particularly when he relates a personal incident. However, it is worth ploughing through them for the good parts. Some of these are the bits where we do find out more about Neanderthals – now thought to be more like the picture on the cover than the shambling, heavy-browed monkey men we were brought up on. The other particularly powerful message is that Homo sapiens didn’t take over the world by pushing Neanderthals out through superior brain power. Instead it was more a case of the race whose way of life was more capable of fitting with the dominant climate, and able to be more flexible as climate changed, that survived. Finlayson emphasizes how much chance entered into this.
The result is a very different picture of the way modern human beings emerged from our ancestors to the one that has been the norm until recently, one that makes a lot of sense, emphasising how much this is a good popular science book of the second kind. And there are even lessons for the present, when climate change may again threaten the future of a particular human species. Our own.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …