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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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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