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104 of 107 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best up-to-Date Guide to Human Evolution
Human evolution is a complex subject that causes controversy between scientists, as well as bringing attacks from creationists. Because of the fact that we will never know all of the details there is much in the way of conjecture and argument about these details. However, despite some common notions to the contrary, the basic ideas of our evolution are fairly solid and...
Published on November 19, 2005 by David B Richman

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3.0 out of 5 stars Good introduction
This guide is an overview of the story of human evolution through fossil discoveries. For anyone just beginning to explore their interest in the topic, this is a handy reference book.
Published 9 months ago by Dr. Morbius


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104 of 107 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best up-to-Date Guide to Human Evolution, November 19, 2005
By 
David B Richman (Mesilla Park, NM USA) - See all my reviews
Human evolution is a complex subject that causes controversy between scientists, as well as bringing attacks from creationists. Because of the fact that we will never know all of the details there is much in the way of conjecture and argument about these details. However, despite some common notions to the contrary, the basic ideas of our evolution are fairly solid and backed up by much skeletal and biochemical evidence. The rapid development of research in the field makes it certain that every book published on the subject is, like every new computer, obsolete within a year or two. Now Carl Zimmer (in my opinion one of the best science writers around) has produced the most up-to-date review of the current knowledge of our origins. His book, "Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins," has got to be the best overview of the subject so far published. Zimmer has even included the recent discovery of Homo floresiensis, the so-called "Hobbit" man, as well as the latest thinking on the many other human fossils found in Africa, Europe and Asia. Zimmer is cautious, as he should be, about accepting pronouncements about such discoveries until the claims are well established and accepted by the majority.

One fact that has come out of modern genetic studies on human populations mentioned by Zimmer is the discovery that all humans are very closely related (only 15% of the variation in human populations is between populations, while the other 85% is within populations.) We are truly all brothers and sisters (or more precisely cousins) and thus are all in the same human predicament. It is to be hoped that this knowledge will make us more respectful of people who are in reality only superficially different from ourselves.

This well-illustrated book is another in a series of fine science books published by the Smithsonian and one that should certainly be read by anyone interested in our beginnings
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78 of 79 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging text, beautiful artwork, May 24, 2006
The romantic days of the search for the "missing link" are gone, and as science writer Carl Zimmer reminds us, that is all to the good since the very idea of a "missing link" is a misdirection. What we have today is the search for human ancestors and for a distinction to be made between our ancestors and other ancient hominids. This book with its beautiful prints and photos, engaging drawings and helpful charts, and especially the sprightly text by Zimmer brings the general reader up to date (circa 2005) on the latest developments.

There's a lot going on. There's the controversy about Homo floresiensis, thought to be a tiny hominid, found in Indonesia in 2004. Zimmer presents the arguments. Some think that Homo floresiensis is an island adaptation of Home erectus, the first hominid to make it out of Africa 1.8 million years ago. After all, island adaptation often leads to diminished size. There are fossils of now extinct small elephants in Indonesia. But others believe that the skull found is an anomaly, a case of microcephaly, a birth defect. I'm betting on the latter.

There are wooden spears found that are around 400,000 years old, meaning that Homo habilis or Homo ergaster (who may be one and the same) or the more recently discovered Homo heidelbergensis were accomplished tool makers long before Homo sapiens arrived on the scene. There is the idea that Homo neanderthalensis is a cold climate, European adaptation of Homo erectus.

Part of the excitement in paleontology is in the new fossil finds, and part is in our new-found ability to analyze DNA samples to map the spread of Homo sapiens. This allows us to see the "out of Africa" phenomenon in three main stages: (1) Homo erectus leaving Africa 1.8 million years ago, followed by (2) Homo heidelbergensis expanding into not only Europe and the Near East and China, but into Southeast Asia as well. Finally (3), about 130,000 years ago, Homo sapiens begin to move out of Africa, first into the Levant and then into East Asia and Australia (50,000 years ago), then into Europe and Siberia (40,000 years ago) and ultimately into the Americas (20,000 years ago). Incidentally, this book has Homo sapiens coming onto the scene almost 200,000 years ago.

Zimmer talks about the various hominid cultures and speculates on their social and religious possibilities. On the subject of what happened to the Neanderthal, he intimates that he believes it was a combination of things that allowed humans to survive while the Neanderthals went extinct, including being better able to adapt to climate change, having a more sophisticated culture and better hunting techniques. I think it's also possible (actually I think it's likely) that humans were better at killing not only herd animals but the competition as well, meaning that one of the reasons that the Neanderthals are gone is because we killed them. Zimmer more or less skirts around this, waiting (wisely, I think) until further evidence is in.

In a final chapter, "Where Do We Go from Here?" Zimmer briefly discusses biotechnology and genetic engineering, and how our species might be affected by cultural evolution.

This is a handsome book It's like a coffee table book with the high gloss, heavy pages and the beautiful artwork, but smaller in size. Most significantly it is a book aimed at the general reader that is well written, well edited, and very well presented. And it is clear. It is in fact the clearest book on human origins--usually a very murky subject--that I have read.

By the way, Zimmer is the author of several excellent science books. I especially recommend his creepy, but fascinating, Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures (2000).
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Almost top line, November 9, 2006
As one of North America's leading science writers, Carl Zimmer brings excellent qualifications to this book. His earlier work, "Evolution: Triumph of an Idea" skilfully explained the history of life. His "Parasite Rex", despite the topic, is a delightful read. In this book, focused on how the human branch of life's historical tree grew and developed, he again weaves his careful research and fine writing into a highly understandable survey. With a collection of vivid illustrations to enhance the text, this work poses a difficult selection choice for those interested in what we know of our origins.

The title is evocative, but the book's brevity and the dynamics of the science of palaeoanthropology necessarily limit what can be presented. Zimmer doesn't spend overmuch time in dealing with the history of the science. Instead, he deals with the topics involved in how fossil finds and genetics research provide clues to how humanity developed over the millennia. With the paucity of available fossils and the indeterminate nature of historical genetics, absolute answers on human evolution are sparse. New finds in both fields challenge any thesis, provide endorsement or refutation in equal measure. Zimmer is fully up to handling these vagaries, carefully guiding us through the questions, the evidence and the resolution. He's quick to point out where questions, even new ones generated by recent research, remain to be addressed. One could almost believe him to be a field researcher, when he laments the need for new exploration and evidence brought up for study. He also keeps pace with the emergence of innovative techniques providing the analytical tools that point to answers.

The eight chapters comprising the body of the book explain how random the finding of fossils truly is. Sahelanthropus tchadensis was revealed in a wind-blown Sahara basin, while the earliest Homo erectus was taken from a jungle river ravine. Stone tools may erode from a stream channel or appear in sediments that once fringed an ancient lake. Dating, that fundamental aspect that places the various finds in respect to one another, is also an indeterminate. Volcanoes, spewing ash-bearing crystals, is the major form of calendar to the field worker. The calendar must be set for place as well as time, since our ancestors had the capacity to emigrate. Zimmer explains how their wandering from continent to continent has both clarified and confused the picture we have of the tree. Was every branch from a single trunk, or did many trunks form, spouting new species in various locations?

Our wanderings result from one of the great mysteries of human evolution. Unlike any other mammal, we are wholly bipedal. Why should that capacity have evolved, and did it change our lifestyle, or was our behaviour a result of standing upright? Zimmer poses these questions and the scholars who have offered answers. Hominid fossils, always fragile, rarely provide clear explanations. Leg length compared to arm's reach is but a guideline. Jaws, rib cages and other elements must be carefully detailed, the author notes. Even when things seem clarified, a new factor may intrude to force revision of ideas.

The two major factors that brought about human uniqueness are, of course, tool making and language. While other animals, even birds, can apply tools and certainly have methods of communication, it is left to our lineage to develop these elements in highly complex ways. We alone, Zimmer reminds us, developed talents for planning how a tool should look to perform its task properly. Language, no matter how it started or developed across the world, granted us the ability to pass ideas down the generations. Skills learned were exchanged, and the growth of a brain stimulated by hunting and group living was further stimulated. Modern genetics, Zimmer explains, has revealed genes, particularly FOXP2, which promote language learning. Forms of FOXP2 exist in other species, although its role for them remains unclear. Language, however, is also instrumental in our spread over the planet. Ironically, it may have been the "competitive edge" our species had that allowed it to eliminate our closest cousins, the Neanderthal.

Like all books on human origins, this one suffers from "calendaritis" - new research has nudged some of Zimmer's effort to one side. That in no way reduces the value of this book. What is more questionable is the small physical size and large margins. That reduces the font and deprives the author of room to expand on topics needing the space. While the graphics are excellent for the size of the book, they may have been given more prominence than necessary. The publisher, as so often happens with books of this type, disrupts the flow of the text with "sidebar boxes". These are always useful, and usually necessary, but improper placement can be disruptive. Entire pages given over to skull images are of doubtful value, although the comparative arrangements greatly enhance the narrative. It's a hard choice, giving this book four stars, but five won't truly reflect its worth. If you must make a choice in selecting the prime survey on human origins, "The Complete World of Human Evolution" by Chris Stringer and Peter Andrews remains your best bet. Until a new set of fossils is found! [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Top notch reporting perfectly executed, January 14, 2007
By 
Michael Heath (North Woods of Michigan) - See all my reviews
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There are several reasons why this book belongs in every home and high school science classroom:

1) Carl Zimmer is an excellent journalist. He's a talented writer whose interesting to read, his work focuses nearly exclusively on science along with publishing general works on evolution so he's understands the science behind our human origins, and his talent as a writer allows him to write at a level a 10th grader can understand rather than often cryptic jargon of someone immersed in the research. He also humanizes his reporting with several human-interest stories of the scientists behind some of our biggest stories as well as portraying the thrill of "the find of a lifetime" that several fortunate scientists and their teams experience.

2) The book is beautifully illustrated and photographed. I especially enjoyed the comparative skull photos and illustrations.

3) This book focuses on a particular game plan, human origins, with very little tangential forays. It spends very little time on the general theory of evolution itself, religious objections, or technical controversies those immersed in the industry debate. Instead Zimmer and his editor provide a journalistic account of the state of our knowledge regarding human evolution, specifically: fossil finds, hypotheses and theories on immigration, technology development and its effect on mutations, and even a chapter on human potential for change in the future.

This would be an excellent supplemental book for a high school biology class or even 100-level college classes due to its relatively short length at a heavily illustrated 165 pages. It been 20 years since I read a book focused exclusively on human origins so I was well rewarded with what we've learned since then along with some great pictures of fossil finds. I was also able to purchase a like-new used book on Amazon for about $7 so this is a no-brainer; order this book!!!
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Captivating!, June 1, 2006
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Here's the abbreviated version: The earliest hominids evolved from a primate in the Rift Valley in East Africa almost 7 mya (million years ago). The early group became extinct, but their descendents became australopithicus, represented best by the 3 foot tall 3.5 mya Lucy, also in the Rift Valley. Australopithicus became extinct about 2.2 mya. Descending from them before their demise were the Paranthropus group and the Homo group about 2.7 mya, again in the Rift Valley. The Paranthropus group, best known by P. robustus, became extinct by 1.2 mya. Homo habilis was the first of the homo species, giving rise to H. ergaster (a dead end), H. erectus, and H. heidelbergensis. H. erectus (fossils found from 1.9 mya to 30 kya) is thought to be the immediate ancestor of H. floresiensis, whose remains were discovered in 2004 and lived only 18,000 kya (thousand years ago). H. heidelbergensis gave rise to H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens.

H. erectus wandered out of Africa 1.8 mya. Fossils have been found as far west as Italy and as far east as China and Indonesia. A group of H. heidelbergensis migrated from Africa about 600 kya and their fossils have been found from Spain to China. The European descendants of H. heidelbergensis evolved into Neanderthals (fossils found from 135 kya to 27 kya). African H. heidelbergensis is believed to have given rise to our own species 200 kya.

H. sapiens migrated from the Rift Valley, throughout mid and southern Africa 150 kya. Some occupied part of the Levant from 130 kya to 80 kya. Another group headed east and by 50 kya had arrived in Australia and east Asia. Members of this group crossed the Bering Strait to the Americas about 20 kya. A fourth group headed northeast to Europe and northwest to all of Asia by 40 kya. Members of this group crossed the Bering strait again, this time 12 kya.

This book from the Smithsonian is fantastic. They drafted celebrated Science journalist Carl Zimmer for the text and selected a whole field of supportive talent for the book's accessories. There are 164 high quality photographs, diagrams, and other visual aids out of 164 pages.

Special one to two page synopses facilitate certain chapters on the subjects of: Fossil Evidence, Fossil Dating, DNA, The Chimpanzee Genome Project, Myth of the Missing Link, Orangutans and Upright Walking, Reconstructions of Specimens, Language, and Genetic Engineering.

Of special interest to me is the explanation of how facial and bodily reconstruction is done - complete with beautiful reconstructive pictures of a Neanderthal mother and infant, a Neanderthal young girl, Lucy, H. floresiensis, and H. erectus.

"Smithsonian Guide to Intimate Human Origins" is simple enough for any layman but concise enough for any scientist wanting a synopsis of the latest knowledge in human origins and paleontology. Complete with the DNA genealogies that have clarified so many questions in this field of study, this book is simply outstanding.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Covers a lot of ground concisely, August 7, 2006
By 
Vijay Sundaram (San Francisco, USA) - See all my reviews
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I read this book within two days, enjoyed every minute, and learned a ton. That's what a writer can do when he organizes his material superbly yet parsimoniously, resisting the temptation to get technical on you or brandish everything he knows about a subject. The book does a wonderful job of laying out (most plausible) hypotheses by drawing on the latest observations and discoveries, several from the last 4-5 years. This is critical because a lot has been learned and revised in recent times.

Here's one example of a recent study that illustrates this dynamic aspect, but hasn't made this edition. First reported in May 2006, this study found through genetic analysis that the split between human and chimpanzee lineages, a pivotal event in human evolution, may have happened much later than supposed through fossil evidence. DNA analysis suggests that the split happened somewhere around 5.4 mya, much later than first assumed. So what then are we to make of the proto-human fossil discovery of 2002, Sahelanthropos tchadensis, that is dated at 6-7 mya, appears to possess both ape and human traits and was possibly even bipedal? An intriguing explanation offered in this study, to fit both facts above, is that chimps and human ancestors branched off twice, with the first split being followed by interbreeding between the two populations before the second split. So we are all a result of hybridization according to this stunning hypothesis.

But, back to the book. At the end of the reading, you will have a reasonable map of timelines, migrations and seminal events in the evolution of our species. Many other reviewers here have remarked on the wonderful diagrams and artwork that accompanies the narrative. The book also has several arresting callout sections on related topics and here are a few: genetic engineering, reconstruction techniques used by paleoanthropologists, language and its cause-and-effect role in human evolution.

Another thing I really liked about the book is that it allowed me to feel as though I was piecing together the evidence myself, and drawing the conclusions. This is the first book from Zimmer that I have read and it will not be the last.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good beginning..., July 23, 2006
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Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins is what I would call of a beginner's guide to much of the up-to-date information we have on human evolution. Published in 2005 this is one of the best books on human origins. Not just because of the details but because of the beauty of the book itself - tons of full color photos, clear and easy to understand graphs and a lovely dust cover, this book is a must for any collection. I finished the book in a day, not because it was light reading, but because it was a joy to read. From fossils to DNA, from looking at our past to exploring what may be our future, from stone tools to culture. The author really digs into the subject WITHOUT talking down at the reader OR getting trapped in the messy details or complex scientific debates.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins, October 21, 2006
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I'm a second-year anthropology student, and this book really helped me study for my Archaeology and World Prehistory exam. It gives a more in-depth look than my text-book.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant coverage of contemporary research on human evolution, August 2, 2006
Carl Zimmer is a rarity: a science writer who thoroughly understands his subject and can interpret complex science in a way that laypeople can readily grasp.

This overview of contemporary knowledge of human origins is beautiful in every respect. Zimmer's writing is wonderfully smooth. Even the most complex subjects are rendered simple, but not in a condescending manner. The book is richly and profusely illustrated. The overall design lends itself to easy reading.

If you want to know where today's scientists think we humans came from, this single volume will tell you.

Jerry
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Starter Book, May 9, 2006
By 
If anyone wants a fairly clear overview of human origins this is the place to start. The author attempts to present the latest evidence and conclusions not only in the physical realm (bones, bi-pedalism, hands, brain size, etc) but also in the cultural sphere since the jury is still out as to how much these changes affected our physical evolution. Filled with photographs, charts and paintings, it is sure to hold one's attention. And that may be the only problems - its prose appears simplistic as if it were written for (smart) kids. Nothing wrong with that, but many times the plethora of illustrations almost overwhelm the story.

One of the best points made by the book is that modern mankind is only one of several possible outcomes since many other humanoid species existed and vanished in the past. In fact, as as late as a few thousand years ago other proto-humans existed. Several topics are briefly covered - art, language, species extinction, technology. Good starting book.
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Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins
Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins by Carl Zimmer (Paperback - February 6, 2007)
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