Best Science Books of 2017: Human Biology and Human Evolution

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2017 was a mixed year when it came to human biology and human evolution books, with several popular books published that really pushed the boundaries of accuracy. The choices below are safely reliable though, and I have made sure to note any hiccups in my minireviews. Essential reading for everyone is DNA Is Not Destiny. For those of you hunting for authoritative summaries of human evolution, you’re out of luck this year. The closest you’ll get is the great popular-level book on teeth, diet, and climate evolution, Evolution’s Bite. There are two books on the influence of learning and culture in human evolution, Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony and A Different Kind of Animal, while those of you with a grander view of human evolution will get a lot out of Chimpanzees and Human Evolution. Finally, you might be interested in debunking some sexism, and you can mine some good material fromTestosterone Rex.

Steven J. Heine’s DNA Is Not Destiny: The Remarkable, Completely Misunderstood Relationship between You and Your Genes is the most overdue biology book, a take-no-prisoners, realistic take-down of the ubiquitous genetic determinism that has gripped the general human population. It’s one of those books I wish I could buy multiple copies of, just so I can send it to anybody who asks me yet again about how intelligence is completely genetic and education plays no role; how height isn’t correlated with nutrition; even how gender roles in society are genetically hardwired and not the product of cultural pressures; and a myriad other inane and insane claims that make no sense. Heine refers to a program of “genetic literacy”, and it is something that is very exciting to see happen, to help reduce the extreme essentialism with which the general public treats genetics. We need more of this kind of book, please.

Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender is one of my favourite books, an extremely effective and readable debunking of a large chunk of sham gender-related neuroscience. Her latest stab at the subject of gender differences aims squarely at testosterone. I personally don’t think it reaches the same height as Delusions of Gender, but Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society is still a worthy read – although not quite as convincing as Delusions of Gender. It focuses on the (non-)power of testosterone in shaping behaviour. The main issue with it is that it can easily be said to be biased, since she does not mentioning the large chunks of good science that show that hormones in the womb do affect behaviour. This is a shame, because the parts she does criticise are well-worth that criticism, and it’s a shame to let such a potentially powerful weapon against bad policy and sexist justifications be dismissed because of the omission of the prenatal development research. In all, I give it a recommendation, since everything she debunks needed debunking, and she does it very well.

If I had to pick the most important recent advance in human evolution research, it would be the realisation of the importance of culture. Its acceptance is being cemented with even popular books dedicated only to this subject. Robert Boyd’s A Different Kind of Animal: How Culture Transformed Our Species is based on Boyd’s own research on cooperation, and attempts to provide a general treatise on how our behaviours and the copying and passing on of those behaviours are central driving forces in our evolution. The best part of the book is that it isn’t just the author pushing his pet hypotheses: also included are critical responses from respected scientists from related fields. This is a practice I’d like to see more often. Overall, this is an engagingly-written book, and you may not agree with everything, but it’s definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the intersections of culture, behaviour, and human evolution.

Kevin Laland’s Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind is more focused on the role of teaching and social learning in human evolution, how it was central to our social evolution and may have even caused selection pressures for increased cognition and specific features like imitation and other tangible skills, leading to the evolution of a transmissible culture that has in turn impacted our biology. From this view, it can be said that this book belongs as much to the growing bibliography on animal intelligence, as the book weaves in studies of learning and cognition in other animals (as well as gene-culture evolution, brain size analyses, and other related sciences), some fro Laland’s own lab. In general, it’s a very strong book that I would recommend to anyone looking for an introduction to how learning was key to human social evolution, written by an expert in the field.

Navel gazing is one way to study human evolution, but for a truly accurate and comprehensive view, we must look to our ancestors. While they may not exist in living form anymore, and fossils can’t reveal the full story, we can observe the other line of extant animals descended from the same ancestor: chimpanzees. Chimpanzees and Human Evolution is a multi-author reference volume that reviews everything we know about chimpanzee behaviour and lifestyle, but every chapter is written with a view to reconstructing the last common ancestor of chimps and humans. There is no book like this out there, at least not one that is so up to date, so it’s completely worth it if you’re into comparative studies of human and chimp biologies.

Finally, there must be a book about palaeoanthropology somewhere here, and Peter Ungar’s Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins is a perfect one to cap this list off. Written in a casual tone but containing very valuable information, this book introduces the many ways fossil teeth allow us to reconstruct ancient diets. From tooth morphology to microwear studies to isotopes, Ungar reveals all the methods through a narrative that involves his research and that of important scientists of the past, and in so doing explains how hominin diets evolved in concordance with changing climates. Engrossing, impeccably-written, top-notch science, aimed squarely at the lay reader.

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