5 of the best books on human evolution
Dr Brenna Hassett shares insight from her new book, Growing Up Human, and recommends five of her favourite books for further reading.
Humans are, undoubtedly, an absolutely weird and unlikely species. But what makes them that way? In my latest book, Growing Up Human (£17.99, Bloomsbury), I explore a critical aspect of human evolution that all of us have experienced but somehow never makes the headlines – even though it may be the very thing that makes us the single most successful primate on the planet.
In the book, I look at the evolutionary science behind human childhood and our unique adaptation in drawing childhood out for a lot, lot longer than other animals. I explore where we fit in the primate system of finding a mate, our unimpressive attempts at making babies, the evolution of our difficult, dangerous births and why we make milk like a zebra. What we do with these amazing, strange childhoods, is the result of the critical choices our species has made down the line; all to give ourselves a shot at being forever young.
This book comes from both a career spent looking at the bones and teeth of humans and our relatives 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 realised exactly how many questions about this fundamental part of the human experience were still unanswered.
Why are human pregnancies so dangerous? Why are we (and whales) the only species to have grandmas? What should teenagers be doing all day? And of course, most critically of all, what are we planning on doing with all this extra time?
There are so many books on human evolution out there with a ‘just-so’ explanation for how we humans ended up the way we have, that I want to share in this little list the books that opened up new questions instead; ones that tell us about how we study the human past as well as giving us inspiration for how to do it better in the future.
All of the best scientific research, after all, starts with inspiration, and these are some of the books that inspired me to take my own shot at understanding our world.
If you fancy browsing 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 Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins
My specialist subject is teeth – how they grow, and what we do with them. Prof Peter Ungar has been incredibly influential in this field for decades and has led some of the pioneering research into what has gone on in our mouths in the last few million years that perhaps doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
While the hominid story of walking upright seems firmly fixed in our collective imagination, there is a whole world of evolutionary importance locked down in fossil teeth. Ungar explains how teeth reflect what we eat, and how our teeth have changed as the various species that came before us changed diets, environments, and lifestyles.
While Ungar is an undoubted expert and the book is full of important points about evolution, what I enjoyed most about were the insights from a researcher who has been in the field for a long time, and the first-hand accounts of some of my science’s most exciting discoveries.
Our Human Story
Louise Humphrey and Chris Stringer
This book is close to my heart for two reasons. For one thing, it is an incredibly up-to-date precis of everything our species – and all the ones that came before us – were up to. It’s readable without skimping on detail, and is now my handy go-to for the expansive overview of human evolution.
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Of course, I also had the benefit of sitting around the coffee table with both authors when I worked at the Natural History Museum, London. This means that for me, this book captures in print form some of the best aspects of that job: the opportunity to be in the room where people who know evolutionary anthropology are talking about the latest developments in research.
The Tales Teeth Tell: Development, Evolution, Behavior
It is my mission in life to help spread the word that teeth are one of the most exciting – and undervalued – subjects to research. Prof Tanya Smith has written this book with, I think, exactly that same mission in mind.
If you want to know how teeth can be on the cutting (biting?) edge of science, this is definitely the book for you. Smith has done incredible work bringing new imaging technologies to bear on ancient teeth, taking Neanderthals into a synchrotron and coming out with a day-by-day account of growing up.
While 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 her own journey through the wonder of teeth, something sure to resonate with anyone who has fallen head over heels for science.
Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art
Rebecca Wragg Sykes
There are many ways to tell the story of our hominid past, but none are quite so lyrical as this book by Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes on 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 sets out such a dense and poetic vision of life for our European hominid cousins that you can practically taste the bitter yarrow they ate.
Far from being the troglodytes of Victorian imagination, Wragg Sykes introduces an entirely new kind of human – one that cares, imagines, and creates.
Palaeofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live
I have to include this wonderful book by Professor Marlene Zuk because it is such a refreshing antidote to the shallow understanding of human evolution that worms its way into popular culture.
Zuk dismisses the mythical ideas of a perfect ‘Palaeo’ life and exposes the faddish diets, workouts, and dating advice that people have marketed while trying to sell the idea that there is some perfect ‘evolutionarily adapted’ way to be human.
There is nothing more frustrating for an anthropologist than the idea that humans are ‘evolved’ to do anything at all when it is so clear that the only way species survive is through adaptation and change. Taking down the protein gurus and nonsense love life advice with humour and fact, this is a wonderful book for anyone who has ever had a suspicion that maybe ‘palaeo’ life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
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Brenna is a biological anthropologist based at University College London who researches the hidden histories of human lives using clues from bones and teeth. While her 'proper' research as an academic tends to involve intense laboratory work with very very small structures in teeth, her archaeological experience has taken her to a variety of interesting places. She's been menaced by goats while walking very straight lines on an island in Greece that is four hours from anywhere, she's had interesting amoebic conditions relating to the quantity of camel urine present in the sand around burials she was digging next to the Pyramids at Giza, and been attacked by fire ants in a banana grove in Thailand. She writes on the subjects that fascinate anyone interested in human beings: why we are how we are, how we got here, and whether large parts of human evolution were even a good idea in the first place.
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