Imagine that you’re standing in a bookstore or library. You want to learn about human evolution, but you don’t know where to start. You don’t want anything complicated; you just want to know the basics and to find out if it’s an interesting topic. You’re down to two books: either Bernard Wood’s Human Evolution: A Very Short Introduction (or A Brief Insight) or Silvana Condemi and François Savatier’s A Pocket History of Human Evolution: How We Became Sapiens. Which do you choose?
It’s a difficult choice because from the titles and covers, the books seem like they might be almost identical. Inside, they could not be more different.
The first and most noticeable differences are that Wood’s book is 153 pages long and was published in 2006 and updated in 2011. Meanwhile, Condemi and Savatier’s book is 131 pages long and was first published in English in 2019. If you’re in a great hurry standing there in the bookstore or library, then your best bet is to just get the more recent book. After all, our knowledge of human evolution changes so rapidly. But if you have a minute to choose, then let’s dive a little deeper.
Human Evolution: A Very Short Introduction
Why I disliked the book overall
Bernard Wood’s brief insight on human evolution has been sitting on my shelf for years, and I even recommended it in my post 30 Books Every Atheist Should Read. I said that this “short book means that learning about this fascinating topic doesn’t have to be laborious.” Well, unfortunately it was actually very laborious. Wood’s book honestly concerned me in that it was so dry that it made paleoanthropology seem boring, and I know for a fact that human origins are anything but boring. Take, for example, this paragraph about Lucy:
The picture of Au. afarensis that emerges is of a hominin weighing from 75 pounds to 125 pounds (34 to 57 kilograms). Its brain volume was between 400 and 500 cm³, larger than the average brain size of a chimpanzee and substantially larger than the 300-350 cm³ estimate for the brain size of S. tchadensis and Ar. ramidus. However, when brain size is related to the size of the body (blue whales have larger brains than modern humans, but they weigh more than we do) the brain of Au. afarensis is only a little larger than that of an equivalent-sized chimpanzee. Its incisor teeth (the four teeth in each jaw you see when people smile) are much smaller than those of chimps, but the chewing teeth (the two premolars and three molars on each side that are at the back of the jaw—you need to make someone laugh out loud to see them) of Au. afarensis are larger than those of chimps. This suggests that its diet included more hard-to-chew items than does the diet of chimps. The shape and size of the pelvis and lower limb remains suggest that Au. afarensis was capable of walking bipedally but probably only for short distances.Bernard Wood, Human Evolution: A Brief Insight, pp. 94-95
I’m not very interested in the technical side of paleoanthropology, but I know that discussions of measurements like this are necessary. However, Wood surely could have explained this in a more engaging way. This long paragraph could have easily been a diagram discussing the sizes of the brain, body, and teeth of the species mentioned. Wood could have then briefly explained how this affects their diets and style of walking.
I have to give Wood’s book credit, though, for the full-color photographs throughout. In this section, he showed the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s model of Lucy as well as the Natural Museum of Ethiopia’s reconstruction of her skeleton. The images made me want to buy plane tickets to go see the exhibits in person!
Who is this book for?
I find that it’s good practice when you don’t like a book to try to get to the bottom of why. In my case, I had an idea of what I wanted from this book and it didn’t deliver. That’s not to say that it was objectively bad, however. First of all, I had to keep in mind that Bernard Wood is a scientist and not a pop science author. These two skill sets are by no means mutually inclusive! I don’t doubt that Wood is a talented writer, but in all likelihood his writing experience is primarily scientific papers. When I considered that background, the book made more sense.
Second of all, this book definitely has a place. I could see it in a college classroom, perhaps in a Paleoanthropology 101 class for undergraduate freshmen. The book’s purpose was also elucidated when I imagined it not as something for a hobbyist like myself to learn more about the field, but rather for someone interested in becoming a paleoanthropologist themselves. They might want to know how paleoanthropologists actually do their jobs, how they know what they know, and what terminology and technology they use.
Even then, I was puzzled that the book began with a history of our knowledge of human evolution. Wood touched on Greek scholarship, gave a slightly disappointing perpetuation of the “lost science in the Dark Ages” trope, and of course covered names like Linnaeus, Darwin, and Mendel. I felt that this history was pretty unnecessary, considering that this is supposed to be a brief book on human evolution. Wood’s readers are likely familiar enough with evolution already that he need not cover it.
Final thoughts on Wood’s book
My problems with Human Evolution: A Brief Insight boil down to Wood’s unfamiliarity with his audience. In addition to what I just mentioned, he also used unnecessarily technical language that I haven’t seen in other paleoanthropology books. At the same time, he “dumbed down” a lot of the information with redundant analogies. (See the quoted paragraph above and the slightly condescending parentheticals.)
Was he talking to a paleoanthropology major or an interested hobbyist? Is the reader already familiar with evolutionary history or are they clueless? I’m not sure Bernard Wood knows.
A Pocket History of Human Evolution: How We Became Sapiens
I was immediately less bored when I began French paleoanthropologist Silvana Condemi and journalist François Savatier’s book A Pocket History of Human Evolution: How We Became Sapiens.
What I liked about the book
Here’s how it starts:
Homo sapiens is a strange animal. Our ancestors first lived in trees, then came down to explore the ground. Then they became bipeds and eventually explored the world—from there, possibilities were endless. This changing behavior is one of the greatest enigmas there is, but we are in the process of unraveling it, with the help of amazing recent advancements in prehistoric sciences.Silvana Condemi and François Savatier, A Pocket History of Human Evolution, Introduction
What a refreshing tone! This introduction actually pulled me in; it made me feel like a detective about to solve one of humanity’s greatest mysteries.
Leaving footprints: two takes in Laetoli
Impressively, A Pocket History of Human Evolution delivered. For the first half of the book, Condemi and Savatier unravel the big, interconnected cycle of biology and culture that caused humans to become what we are today. They explained the relationship between our big brains, our bipedality, and our use of tools and elements like our diets, our lifestyles, and even the beginning of language.
When discussing what we know about the beginnings of human bipedality, Condemi and Savatier told readers about the famous Laetoli footprints.
As crazy as it might seem, the oldest evidence we have of Australopithecus is not a fossil at all but a few footprints that have been preserved: they belong to three specimens of Australopithecus afarensis, the same species as the famous Lucy. Around 3.8 million years ago, at a site called Laetoli in what is now Tanzania, the Sadiman volcano covered the earth in a six-inch-thick bed of ash, which preserved the footprints of three Australopithecus specimens who walked through it together.Silvana Condemi and François Savatier, A Pocket History of Human Evolution, p. 9
For comparison, here is what Bernard Wood wrote about the same footprints in his book.
The oldest preserved trails of hominin footprints, and the oldest hominin trace fossils, are the 3.6 myr-old trails excavated at Laetoli, Tanzania, by Mary Leakey. The hominin footprints are just one of many trails made by large and small animals, ranging in size from horses to hares. The foot- and hoofprints are well preserved because the animals happened to walk across a flat area where a layer of volcanic ash had recently been moistened by a rainstorm. The type of fine volcanic ash at Laetoli has a chemical content that makes it behave like cement, so when the sun dried out the layer it became rock hard. The process is much like the one used outside a Hollywood restaurant to preserve the hand- and footprints of film stars. These trace fossils provide graphic evidence that a contemporary early hominin, presumably Au. afarensis, was capable of walking bipedally. The size of the footprints and the length of the stride are consistent with estimates of stature made using the limb bones of Au. afarensis, suggesting that the standing height of individuals was between 3 and 4 feet.Bernard Wood, Human Evolution: A Brief Insight, pp. 95-96
In my opinion, we just didn’t need to know every detail of how the volcano preserved the footprints, just that it did. All this to say that I appreciated Condemi and Savatier’s ability to stay succinct and relevant.
By the second half of A Pocket History of Human Evolution, we were now Sapiens. The authors then focused on early human migration, the beginnings of culture, and how communities gradually evolved from hunter-gatherer hordes to towns and eventually cities. Dog lovers will appreciate Condemi and Savatier’s discussion of how we befriended wolves.
I also admired the overall visual design of A Pocket History. Unlike the Very Short Introduction, Condemi and Savatier’s book didn’t have full-color photographs. Instead, it had well-designed specially-made two-color diagrams that kept the entire book feeling cohesive and modern. Several figures helped bring the authors’ points to life in a digestible way.
Speaking of diagrams, I was interested to see the hominid family trees in both books. Condemi and Savatier’s book has a leg up over Wood’s in that it is 13 years newer. In addition to having fuller family trees, Condemi and Savatier’s also told of the 2015 discovery of the Lomekwi stone tool culture, which told us that Australopithecus, not Homo, were the first makers of tools! (So much for Homo habilis being the “handy man.”)
(Click images to view in a new tab.)
What I really wanted
Personally, I’m not as interested in early Sapiens prehistory as I am in earlier paleoanthropology. As I’ve said before, I have a soft spot for fossil specimens like Lucy. But what I really love is the stories behind these discoveries. In this respect, I didn’t think that either book delivered. I would have loved to see an introduction to all of the big names in paleoanthropology, both fossils and their discoverers. This field has some of the craziest antics and the juiciest drama. That’s what pulled me in, and as far as first impressions of paleoanthropology go, I think that would make the best brief introduction.
Strangely, it feels that several paleoanth books have these long histories in the beginnings, but they always seem to be in books that are supposed to be about something else. I’ve read this history multiple times unintentionally: in Lucy, in The Jesuit and the Skull, and in The Piltdown Men. Then I pull not one, but two dedicated introductions from the shelf and get almost no history whatsoever! Oh, the irony.
So if you are that person in the bookstore or library looking for a good intro to human evolution, you have a few choices. Unsurprisingly, it really comes down to what you want. If you’re interested in majoring in paleoanthropology, you might enjoy Wood’s book. If you’re simply curious about how we humans got to be the way we are, then Condemi and Savatier’s book is for you.
However, if you’re like me and you want the stories from the field, then you might consider Ian Tattersall’s The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack and Other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution or perhaps Lydia Pyne’s Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils. Admittedly, I haven’t yet read Seven Skeletons, but after these two, I’m very curious to! Of course, there are dozens of other great books that you could start with if you want to get into paleoanthropology. That’s the great thing about nonfiction: there’s a book for everyone.