Humans are, without a doubt, an absolutely strange and unlikely species. But what makes them so? In my latest book, Grow Human (£17.99, Bloomsbury)I explore a critical aspect of human evolution that we have all experienced but which somehow never makes the headlines – even though it may be what makes us the most successful primate on the planet.
In the book, I look at the evolutionary science behind human childhood and our unique adaptation drawing childhood for many, plot longer than other animals. I explore where we fit into the primate system to find a mate, our unimpressive attempts to make babies, the evolution of our difficult and dangerous births, and why we produce milk like a zebra. What we do with these amazing and strange childhoods is the result of the critical choices our species has made down the line; everything to give us a chance to be eternally young.
This book stems from both a career spent observing the bones and teeth of humans and our loved ones to understand the evolutionary history of growth and development. However, it also comes from a much more personal place, as I was expecting a child of my own and realized exactly how many questions about this fundamental part of the human experience still remained unanswered.
Why are human pregnancies so dangerous? Why are we (and whales) the only species to have grandmothers? What should teenagers do all day? And of course, and most importantly, what do we plan to do with all that extra time?
There are so many books on human evolution with a “correct” explanation of how we humans ended up the way we did, that I want to share in this small list the books that opened new questions instead; those who tell us how we study the human past and inspire us to do so better in the future.
All the best scientific research, after all, begins with inspiration, and these are some of the books that inspired me to try to understand our world.
If you fancy perusing more great science reads, check out this list of the best science books to fuel your curiosity.
5 best books on human evolution
Evolution’s Bite: A History of Teeth, Food and Human Origins
My specialty is teeth – how they grow and what we do with them. Professor Peter Ungar has been incredibly influential in this field for decades and has led some of the pioneering research into what has happened in our mouths over the past few million years which may not have received the attention it deserves.
While the story of hominid upright walking seems firmly ingrained in our collective imagination, there’s a whole world of evolutionary significance locked away in fossil teeth. Ungar explains how teeth reflect what we eat and how our teeth have changed as different species that have preceded us have changed their diets, environments and lifestyles.
Although Ungar is an indisputable expert and the book is full of important points on evolution, what I liked most were the insights from a researcher who has been in the field for a long time and the first-hand accounts hand of some of my scientific work. most exciting discoveries.
Our human history
Louise Humphrey and Chris Stringer
This book is close to my heart for two reasons. For one thing, it’s an incredibly up-to-date summary of everything our species — and all those before us — have done. It’s readable without skimping on detail, and it’s now my handy reference for a comprehensive overview of human evolution.
Of course, I also had the advantage of sitting around the coffee table with the two authors when I worked at the Natural History Museum in London. This means that for me this book captures in print some of the best aspects of this work: the possibility of being in the room where the people who to know evolutionary anthropology talks about the latest research developments.
Teeth tell tales: development, evolution, behavior
It’s my mission in life to help spread the message that teeth are one of the most exciting – and undervalued – research topics. Professor Tanya Smith wrote this book with, I think, exactly the same mission in mind.
If you want to know how teeth can be at the cutting edge of science, this book is definitely for you. Smith has done an incredible job of applying new imaging technologies to ancient teeth, taking Neanderthals into a synchrotron, and presenting a daily account of their growth.
As the book explores how we can use stable isotopes and synchrotrons to recover the stories of ancient lives, one of the most appealing things about it is the openness with which Smith shares his own journey through the wonder of teeth, something that is sure to resonate with anyone. who fell madly in love with science.
Kinship: Life, Love, Death and Neanderthal Art
Rebecca Wragg Sykes
There are many ways to tell the story of our hominid past, but none are as lyrical as this book by Dr. Rebecca Wragg Sykes about our last relatives, the Neanderthals.
The best books on human evolution rewrite the tired old tropes of yesteryear, and this book not only rewrites them, but presents such a dense and poetic view of life for our European hominid cousins that you can practically taste the bitter yarrow they ate.
Far from being the troglodytes of the Victorian imagination, Wragg Sykes presents an entirely new kind of human – one who cares, imagines and creates.
Palaeofantasy: what evolution really tells us about sex, food and the way we live
I must include this wonderful book by Professor Marlene Zuk because it is such a refreshing antidote to the superficial understanding of human evolution that is creeping into popular culture.
Zuk rejects mythical ideas of a perfect “paleo” life and exposes the fad diets, workouts, and dating advice people have marketed while trying to sell the idea that there is an “evolutionarily perfect” way. adapted” of being human.
There is nothing more frustrating to an anthropologist than the idea that humans are “evolved” to do anything when it is so clear that the only way species survive is through adaptation and transformation. change. Picking up protein gurus and nonsensical love life advice with humor and facts, this is a wonderful book for anyone who’s ever suspected that ‘paleo’ life might not be all it is. meant to be.
Growing up human: the evolution of childhood by Dr Brenna Hassett (£17.99, Bloomsbury) will be released on July 7, 2022.
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