An informative overview of paleontology and evolutionary concepts.




Fast-moving account of the author’s momentous discovery of the famous “Lucy” fossil.

Excavating in Ethiopia in 1974, Johanson (director, Institute of Human Origins/Arizona State Univ.; co-author: From Lucy to Language, 1996, etc.) found a 40-percent-complete fossil of a female hominid skeleton that proved to be 3.2 million years old. He dubbed it “Lucy,” after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” played repeatedly by members of his team while celebrating the find. More formally named Australopithecus afarensis, Lucy is widely regarded as a crucial evolutionary step between apes and humankind, and the story of her unearthing is well-told in the book’s first half with the help of Scientific American reporter Wong. Plentiful, well-chosen details convey the excitement and importance of the 1974 expedition and those that followed, as well as their frustrations. Descriptions of Ethiopia’s political upheavals and of the Ministry of Culture and Sports Affairs’ byzantine bureaucracy remind us that an anthropological dig is a complicated international affair. Technical information, such as how potassium-argon fossil dating works, is provided in jargon-free prose that draws readers into the paleoanthropologist’s world. Among the welcome flashes of humor is Johanson’s visit to the set of the TV program NOVA, where he advises a rubber-suited actress on how Lucy would have moved. The second half of the book places Lucy in context by exploring links in the evolutionary chain before and after Australopithecus afarensis. It pays tribute to the work of other paleoanthropologists, from pioneers Louis and Mary Leakey to Johanson’s contemporaries. A chapter on archaeologist Michael Morwood’s recent discovery in Southeast Asia of so-called “hobbits”—fossilized skeletons of human ancestors scarcely more than three-feet tall—is especially engrossing.

An informative overview of paleontology and evolutionary concepts.

Pub Date: March 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-307-39639-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Harmony

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2009

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.


A neurobiologist reveals the interconnectedness of the natural world through stories of plant migration.

In this slim but well-packed book, Mancuso (Plant Science/Univ. of Florence; The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, 2018, etc.) presents an illuminating and surprisingly lively study of plant life. He smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research through stories of how various plant species are capable of migrating to locations throughout the world by means of air, water, and even via animals. They often continue to thrive in spite of dire obstacles and environments. One example is the response of plants following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Three decades later, the abandoned “Exclusion Zone” is now entirely covered by an enormous assortment of thriving plants. Mancuso also tracks the journeys of several species that might be regarded as invasive. “Why…do we insist on labeling as ‘invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories?” asks the author. “On a closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.” Throughout, Mancuso persuasively articulates why an understanding and appreciation of how nature is interconnected is vital to the future of our planet. “In nature everything is connected,” he writes. “This simple law that humans don’t seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species, besides being a calamity in and of itself, has unforeseeable consequences for the system to which the species belongs.” The book is not without flaws. The loosely imagined watercolor renderings are vague and fail to effectively complement Mancuso’s richly descriptive prose or satisfy readers’ curiosity. Even without actual photos and maps, it would have been beneficial to readers to include more finely detailed plant and map renderings.

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63542-991-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2016

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • National Book Critics Circle Winner


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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet