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Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins Hardcover – November 30, 2005

4.6 out of 5 stars 44 customer reviews

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Hardcover, November 30, 2005
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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Carl Zimmer is the author of three well-received books on evolution. A Guggenheim fellow in 2002, he writes regularly for magazines, including National Geographic, Science, Newsweek, and Natural History.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers (November 30, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B000VPP8U6
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 7 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,809,215 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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