Wednesday, 21 October 2009

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

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