Book Review: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, Chris Stringer

Book Review: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on EarthChris Stringer

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Nonfiction Science: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on EarthChris Stringer

 

Chris Stringer’s book Lone Survivors (outside the USA this book is titled The Origin of Our Species) takes a long look at the theories behind human origins. One thing I learned from this book is how unusual a species humans are. Despite the obvious differences in skin color, hair texture and color, facial shape and contours, etc., human DNA is shockingly consistent. There are more differences between groups of chimpanzees in Africa than there are between any two humans. Another difference is that there are no other living human species. Neanderthals and Denisovans and other members of genus homo have been extinct for millennia. There are multiple species of gorilla, chimpanzee, and virtually any other type of organism you could name, but only one species of human. Speaking scientifically, this is highly unusual, and well worth evaluation.

 

Stringer was one of the first scientists to strongly espouse the ROA theory of human origins. ROA stands for Recently Out of Africa, and alludes to homo sapiens having their beginnings in Africa then spreading around the world from there. Other homo species appear to have developed from a common ancestor in other parts of the world. Neanderthals may have been the most successful other types of humans, both in terms of population size and area, but the fossil record is a challenge for definitive conclusions in this regard. Nor is it certain why the Neanderthals and other human species died out. It is possible they were killed by advancing bands of homo sapiens. Fossil evidence does suggest some died through violence, possibly even cannibalism, and that violence may have come from contemporary modern humans. But it is also possible they were victims of climate change, dietary challenges, or disease. What is now almost indisputable is that sometimes the two groups of humans were not fighters but instead were lovers. Enough Neanderthal (and Denisovan) DNA has been recovered from fossils to determine that modern humans are partially descended from hybrid ancestors. We are not Neanderthal or Denisovan, but some of our genes definitely are.

 

Lone Survivors often raises more questions than it answers. How did modern humans become so smart? There are proposed possible answers: social living, genetic mutation, dietary changes among them. No one really knows the answer, though. Why did homo sapiens survive when other human species did not? Varied diet, warlike behavior, social cooperation, adaptability, high intelligence? Perhaps, but again, no single answer or group of answers seems to be persuasive. This is not a weakness of the book, though. Stringer is willing to hear out opinions that contradict his own. He gives them fair treatment in the book, and is willing to point out the weaknesses in his own opinions on these and other questions. The reader is left wanting more answers, just as Stringer and other paleoanthropologists are left wanting those same answers. We will all have to wait together while more evidence is compiled and more discoveries are made.

 

Like many newer science books, Lone Survivors also tells us about some of the scientists involved in this research. Stringer talks about his days as a graduate student traveling through Europe and studying skulls firsthand. He lived out of his vehicle for many months, and later ruefully confesses that modern DNA techniques proved that he left his own DNA on many of these fossils. Another scientist is a member of a band. These personal anecdotes may or may not enhance the research being done, but they help humanize the researchers and add interest to topics that can occasionally challenge with dry jargon and statistical data overload.

 

Lone Survivors is a thorough, deep book. Written for a general audience, it is not written down to its readers. The author assumes a willingness to challenge assumptions and a desire to learn new information, so he doesn’t shy away from technical data. This means the book is not for every reader, but it definitely is for anyone interested in the scientific questions surrounding human origins and the disappearance of our closest biological relatives.

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Book Review: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on EarthChris Stringer

 

 

Book Review: The Sellout, Paul Beatty

Book Review: The SelloutPaul Beatty

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Fiction: The SelloutPaul Beatty

The Sellout is not an easy book to read. It is not an easy book for me to review. It is brilliant. It is moving. It is funny. It is uncomfortable. It is painful. Throughout the novel I was reminded of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” an essay which satirically suggests Irish parents sell their children as food for the rich so that those children are not a burden to their parents. The Sellout does not tout the gastronomic and economic benefits of cannibalism, but that may be the one forbidden subject that Beatty leaves untouched.

 

Paul Beatty became the first American to win the Man Booker prize with the publication of The Sellout. The novel also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2015. The book itself is absurdly comic: a black slaveowning farmer in the heart of modern Los Angeles seeks to reinstitute official segregation, and his case goes to the Supreme Court. Yet Beatty himself denies that the book is meant to be funny or even satirical. I tend to agree with him (very generous of me, I know!). The themes of the book are deadly serious, and although the plot is absurd, simply labelling it a comic novel or writing it off as “funny” makes it far too easy to dismiss those themes and fail to appreciate how serious the book is.

 

I should warn: if you are easily triggered by any number of things, stay away. Beatty’s language is rough, vulgar, and direct. Words usually deemed racist are used constantly and casually. There are blunt descriptions of violence and sex. In the context of the story and the characters, the choices made by the author are appropriate, but they do not make it an easy read. Nor should it be.

 

The comic elements of this book are easy to see. Beatty’s descriptions of people are seldom flattering and often obscene, but can be hilarious as well. One character’s birthday party involves taking a bus up the 101 highway with the entire staff of a fast food restaurant, a porn actress, and several friends of the character. The party culminates with the bus parking right on the beach, waves lapping at the door, because LA city buses can handle anything. The protagonist raises watermelon, other fruits, and marijuana on his farm. His products are described as good in ways that I won’t repeat, but the comparisons are not ones typically made. From beginning to end, absurdity and strangeness abound.

 

But make no mistake: this is a serious novel about serious topics. The protagonist “owns” a slave. He does not want to, he did not choose to, and how this happens is described in the book, but the basic reason is that the “slave” wanted to be owned. He believed he was never free in white America, he believed that his blackness deserved to be punished, and the one choice he felt he could make was to be “owned” by his protagonist. Together, he and his “owner” come up with a plan to re-segregate their community. The reason is straightforward: their community is already segregated. Their local school is almost entirely black and Hispanic, their neighborhood is entirely black and brown (a very few Asians provide the diversity), so officially segregating the school was simply putting an imprimatur onto a reality. The law of the land may prohibit

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Book Review: The SelloutPaul Beatty