Saturday, 26 April 2008

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

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