REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth” by Chris Stringer

It’s a good question: “Why us?”  And it’s a question that’s bound to come up at a certain point in the contemplation of our natural origins.  After all, we bandy about truths such as “99% of all species that have ever lived on earth are extinct” without getting that chill up our spine that reminds us that we could very easily have been just one more extinct species.  And the unsettling truth is that there were many others of our species — or, at the least, closely related human species — that did, in fact, go extinct.

But the fact that we are still standing protects us from any sense of our true vulnerability and damn good luck in the game of evolution.  “Lone Survivors” tells us our story as we understand it today.  And today’s understanding is very different from what we knew only forty years ago.  It is a story that is continually unfolding.  But in this book we get the benefit of the first-hand experience and accumulated wisdom of Chris Stringer “one of the world’s foremost paleoanthropologists“.

This is a well written and well organized book.  I’ve read enough on the subject to sense what particular “camp” (or “school of thought”) the author is partial to, but one of the quietly wonderful parts of this book is how the author tracks the progression of his own ideas as they have been challenged by new evidence (significant parts of it from his own discoveries and research).  This is one of those uncommon (but, thankfully, not scarce) books written by the scientist actually doing the research he describes.  Add to that the detail that the scientist in question is writing from the back side of a forty-year career that seasons his conclusions and you get a fine, fine book.

The thing I notice about reading current science books is that many of them include last-minute additions, written as the books were “going to press”.  But, then, this is the inherent challenge of reporting science: authors must state what they know today, always understanding that somewhere, someone is finding out something new that will add new dimension to their current understanding of the world.  Nowhere is this more true than in the field of human evolution.  Though we had no hominid fossils at all when Darwin correctly predicted that humans had evolved in Africa, we still don’t have an exhaustive collection of our ancestry.  And so this remains an area where each new discovery has a tremendous impact on our knowledge.  But “Lone Survivors” does a tremendous job of telling our story up to now.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

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