The questions of where, when, and how our species evolved are fascinating, but this well-developed, technically challenging...



Paleoanthropologist Begun (Anthropology/Univ. of Toronto; editor: A Companion to Paleoanthropology, 2013, etc.) claims that the great ape ancestors of humans evolved in Europe and moved to Africa, not the other way around.

The author makes clear that our species has a complex history that can only be properly studied by understanding ape evolution. His examination of fossil apes in Europe, especially the genus Dryopithecus, led him to conclude that they were hominids, the same group to which humans belong. Primitive apes flourished in Africa 20 million years ago, and when some species dispersed to Eurasia, ecological conditions there selected for new adaptations: larger brains and new means of locomotion. When a cooler, drier climate caught up with them there, the ancestors of orangutans ended up in Southeast Asia, whereas the common ancestor of humans and great apes—gorillas and chimpanzees, for example—migrated back to Africa. Begun describes the zone from Germany and Turkey to Kenya as “the Grand Central Station of the middle Miocene,” with the ancestors of many mammals, including apes and humans, dispersing through it. The fossil evidence, he notes, suggests that hominids were thriving in Europe in the late-middle and early-late Miocene but were at that time extremely rare in Africa, a situation that later changed in response to global climate changes. Begun employs diagrams, maps, and photographs of fossils to aid general readers, but the plethora of unfamiliar scientific names and lengthy discussions of skeletal features, facial orientation, and dentition demand close attention, even repeat readings. More accessible are his accounts of his fieldwork, and his comments about the impact of ecological factors on migration, extinction, and diversification are highly relevant today.

The questions of where, when, and how our species evolved are fascinating, but this well-developed, technically challenging account will be tough going for those without a background in the subject matter.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-691-14924-0

Page Count: 264

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: Aug. 9, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

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A quirky wonder of a book.



A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...


Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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