An impressive update on human evolution.



A lucid overview of European prehistory.

“Bones and stones” once dominated archaeology, but advances in genetics have produced new information and settled old arguments about human evolution, relationships, and migrations. Krause, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, and journalist Trappe write that the young field of archaeogenetics enables scientists to “read skeleton fragments and identify connections that would have been unknown even to the people to whom the bones belonged.” By the end of the 20th century, anthropologists knew that ancient hominids had left Africa and spread across the old world. Modern Homo sapiens did the same more than once, arriving permanently in Europe 40,000 years ago. There, they encountered the closely related Neanderthals, who soon died off or were absorbed, leaving us a sprinkling of their genes. A series of ice ages made life difficult until the current warm spell began 12,000 years ago. Modern European DNA contains genes from the hunter-gatherers who thrived until they were marginalized 8,000 years ago by a mass migration of farmers from Anatolia (modern Turkey), which had undergone the agricultural revolution. Completing the modern European genome required another mass migration of pastoralists from the Russian steppes 4,800 years ago. Near the halfway point of the book, the authors pivot from the genetics of our ancestors to their diseases. Hunter-gatherers were too scattered to support epidemics, which began when humans began to live close to one another and their animals, the source of most modern-day epidemics. Readers may be surprised to learn that scientists were only able to offer guesses about the cause of the 14th-century Black Death and earlier plagues—until 2011, when they decoded the genome of the bubonic plague bacillus. Leprosy also terrorized our ancestors but retreated, replaced by tuberculosis, a closely related bacillus, which became the leading killer until the 20th century. The authors conclude their tight yet wide-ranging survey with a discussion of how science does not support any claims of racial supremacy.

An impressive update on human evolution.  

Pub Date: April 13, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-22942-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Jan. 19, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2021

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A lucid, astute text that unpacks the myths of Russian history to help explain present-day motivations and actions.


An expert on Russia delivers a crucially relevant study of a country that has been continuously “subjected to the vicissitudes of ruling ideologies.”

Wolfson History Prize winner Figes, one of the world’s leading authorities on Russian history and culture, shows how, over centuries, Russian autocrats have manipulated intertwined layers of mythology and history to suit their political and imperial purposes. Regarding current affairs, the author argues convincingly that to understand Putin’s aggressive behavior toward Ukraine and other neighboring nations, it is essential to grasp how Russia has come to see itself within the global order, especially in Asia and Europe. Figes emphasizes the intensive push and pull between concepts of East and West since the dubious founding of Kievan Rus, “the first Russian state,” circa 980. Russia’s geography meant it had few natural boundaries and was vulnerable to invasion—e.g., by the Mongols—and its mere size often required strong, central military control. It was in Moscow’s interests to increase its territorial boundaries and keep its neighbors weak, a strategy still seen today. Figes explores the growth of the “patrimonial autocracy” and examines how much of the mechanics of the country’s autocracy, bureaucracy, military structure, oligarchy, and corruption were inherited from three centuries of Mongol rule. From Peter the Great to Catherine the Great to Alexander II (the reformer who freed the serfs) and through the Bolsheviks to Stalin: In most cases, everything belonged to the state, and there were few societal institutions to check that power. “This imbalance—between a dominating state and a weak society—has shaped the course of Russian history,” writes the author in a meaningful, definitive statement. Today, Putin repudiates any hint of Westernizing influences (Peter the Great) while elevating the Eastern (Kievan Rus, the Orthodox Church). In that, he is reminiscent of Stalin, who recognized the need for patriotic fervor and national myths and symbols to unite and ensure the oppression of the masses.

A lucid, astute text that unpacks the myths of Russian history to help explain present-day motivations and actions.

Pub Date: Sept. 20, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-2507-9689-9

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: June 8, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2022

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A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

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Building on his lysergically drenched book How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan looks at three plant-based drugs and the mental effects they can produce.

The disastrous war on drugs began under Nixon to control two classes of perceived enemies: anti-war protestors and Black citizens. That cynical effort, writes the author, drives home the point that “societies condone the mind-changing drugs that help uphold society’s rule and ban the ones that are seen to undermine it.” One such drug is opium, for which Pollan daringly offers a recipe for home gardeners to make a tea laced with the stuff, producing “a radical and by no means unpleasant sense of passivity.” You can’t overthrow a government when so chilled out, and the real crisis is the manufacture of synthetic opioids, which the author roundly condemns. Pollan delivers a compelling backstory: This section dates to 1997, but he had to leave portions out of the original publication to keep the Drug Enforcement Administration from his door. Caffeine is legal, but it has stronger effects than opium, as the author learned when he tried to quit: “I came to see how integral caffeine is to the daily work of knitting ourselves back together after the fraying of consciousness during sleep.” Still, back in the day, the introduction of caffeine to the marketplace tempered the massive amounts of alcohol people were drinking even though a cup of coffee at noon will keep banging on your brain at midnight. As for the cactus species that “is busy transforming sunlight into mescaline right in my front yard”? Anyone can grow it, it seems, but not everyone will enjoy effects that, in one Pollan experiment, “felt like a kind of madness.” To his credit, the author also wrestles with issues of cultural appropriation, since in some places it’s now easier for a suburbanite to grow San Pedro cacti than for a Native American to use it ceremonially.

A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

Pub Date: July 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-29690-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2021

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