Today we are going to cover books on the evolution of a single species: us.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson. 2019. Doubleday. ISBN-13: 978-0385539302
If you ever wanted to learn about the human body, but didn’t want to wade through anatomical and physiological texts, you might want to consider this book. Bryson takes you through an introduction of the body, filling the book with facts not commonly known and debunking several commonly held myths. Along the way, he introduces some of the researchers and doctors that have helped discover what we know. Refreshingly, he does not portray the body as a perfectly designed pinnacle of creation like so many other texts of this type. While marveling at the wonders, he also discusses some of the problems that no rational designer would do, but are perfectly understandable as continuous modifications through evolution. Developed from preexisting organisms and modified to be good enough to reproduce, our body makes sense and Bryson gives a good accounting of our bodies as they really are, which are pretty amazing even if they aren’t anywhere near perfect.
Lost Anatomies: The Evolution of the Human Form by John Gurche. 2019. Abrams. ISBN-13: 978-1419734489
If you’ve ever spent any time looking at depictions of early hominids in museums or texts, you have surely come across the work of John Gurche. As the preeminent artist of paleoanthropology and hominid anatomy, his work can be seen all over the world. Now you can also see it here. From apes to modern humans, it’s all here. Illustrations go from depictions of ape hands and feet, the bones of the arm, and musculature of early hominids, all the way through depictions of the living animals. If you are looking for a visual representation of human evolution, you will find everything you want here done by the master artist himself. The artwork is not scientific illustrations, but they are scientifically accurate. It is science with an artist’s eye. At 9.6′ by 12.4′ and 3.4 pounds, there is a lot of art to peruse.
Humanimals: How Homo sapiens Became Nature’s Most Paradoxical Creature–A New Evolutionary History by Adam Rutherford. 2019. The Experiment ISBN-13: 978-1615195312
Dr. Rutherford walks us through what it means to be human. This book deals with the evolution of humans as a supposedly paragon of creation. If you are a proponent of human exceptionalism, you may be taken aback with this book. In his search to define what makes humans special, he examines genetics, anatomy, ecology, and culture. Along the way he examines several claims about human exceptionalism and skewers them all. Humans, it turns out, when one looks at traits individually, are not so special after all. We are simply animals like any other. So what made us so overtly dominant on the planet? Rutherford concludes, as have others, that it is our capacity to teach on a broad scale. Every animal can learn new tricks. A few even teach their compatriots how to do things. But the development of culture through the transmission of knowledge to even those not related to us on the scale humans have achieved seems to be unique. So when you think about who represents the best of humanity, that would be teachers.
Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich. 2018. Pantheon. ISBN-13: 978-1101870327
These days, if you want to study species and evolution, you will sooner or later have to deal with some serious genetic discussions. Population genetics has really exploded our understanding of human origins and early movements in more ways than one. It has both greatly expanded our knowledge while greatly changing what we thought we already knew. It has made the question of what we even consider as human a challenge. The primary literature can be difficult even for biologists not expert in genetic research. Fortunately, there are people like Dr. Reich, who is both an expert in the techniques and interpretation of the data and an able writer capable of explaining it to someone without a PhD in genetics. So if you are ready to get into the weeds of what it means to be human on a genetic level, but are not yet ready to read the primary literature, you might want to check this book out.
The Evolving Animal Orchestra: In Search of What Makes Us Musical by Henkjan Honing. 2019. MIT Press. ISBN-13: 978-0262039321
Many people think of music as a solely human thing, forgetting they hear birds sing all the time, but they tend to dismiss that as instinctual, not something done simply for the joy of music. These people might be surprised by what Dr. Honing has to say. In this book, Honing grows through the origins and evolution of musicality, showing musicality in many other animals. He takes you through the research and the quest for answers. This book is not a final pronouncement, it is a report on work in progress. The research has made it clear there is a biological basis in musicality. How far through the animal kingdom it goes, how much is biological and how much is cultural, and what the biological basis is in detail is not yet known, but researchers like Dr. Honing are getting closer to those answers.
That’s the end of another list. Come back tomorrow for books on the formation of humans as social creatures.