The Loom

Book News, Part One

Smithsonian cover.jpgMy latest book, Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins is now available on, and I think it’s getting put on the shelves at bookstores. I’ve only referred to the book here glancingly from time to time, and I wanted to take a minute now to give Loom readers a sense of the book (and perhaps inspire the sales of a few copies).

From the start of this blog, I’ve dedicated a lot of space to new discoveries about where we came from. I’ve written about spectacular new fossils, from Sahelanthropus, the oldest known hominid to the Hobbits (a k a Homo floresiensis), which might have been a distant branch of hominid evolution that survived until just 12,000 years ago. It’s also been wonderfully exciting to see studies of the human genome reveal all sorts of fascinating twists and turns in our evolution.

In 2003 I wrote a cover story for Discover about the big questions in human evolution, and before long it evolved into an illustrated, 176-page book published by Smithsonian Books. Here’s a brief overview:

Chapter 1: The Clues
I introduce the book, starting off with Charles Darwin’s remarkably insightful ideas about human evolution–ideas that came to him without any knowledge of DNA or of hominid fossils.

Chapter 2: A Budding Branch

This chapter looks at the latest evidence for how hominids branched off from other apes. This evidence includes new fossils such as Sahelanthropus as well as insights from comparing human DNA to chimpanzee DNA.

Chapter 3: The Walk Begins
Charles Darwin thought that bipedalism, big brains, and tool use all emerged at the same time in human ancestors. It turns out that he was wrong. Hominids were walking on two legs for millions of years with brains not much bigger than a chimp’s. Why they made the transition remains a fascinating puzzle.

Chapter 4: The Toolmakers
Here I tell the story of how our ancestors began making stone tools, looking not just at the ancient tools themselves for clues, but also at the behavior of other apes that might have opened the way to our own technology.

Chapter 5: Becoming Human
This chapter looks at how tall, long-legged hominids emerged about 1.8 million years ago and spread across the Old World, ultimately evolving into species such as Neanderthals and perhaps Homo floresiensis.

Chapter 6: Sapiens
I describe what scientists have learned recently about the emergence of our own species in Africa roughly 200,000 years ago. New discoveries about this crucial time in our evolution–from ancient jewelry to hints of ritual cannibalism–are coming fast and furious these days. Some even had me revising the manuscript to this book at the last minute.

Chapter 7: The Last Wave
Once our species emerged in Africa, it expanded across the rest of the planet, even reaching the New World where no hominid had come before. In this chapter I look at the evidence for how our ancestors spread and the evidence as to why we are now the only species of hominid left on Earth.

Chapter 8: Where Do We Go From Here?
Everyone always wants to know what the future of human evolution will be. There’s plenty of evidence that our species has continued to evolve in just the past few thousand years. At the same time, though, the rise of human culture, medicine, and genetic engineering may be sending our species off on an evolutionary trajectory that’s impossible to predict.

So if you want a short, sweet, beautifully illustrated introduction to the science of where we come from–or if you’re trying to think of a Christmas gift for that cranky uncle who says there’s no evidence whatsoever for human evolution–please check out this book!


  1. #1 Scott Belyea
    November 17, 2005

    I’ve been given a ship date of November 23 from Amazon in Canada.

    “…trying to think of a Christmas gift for that cranky uncle”

    Nope … it’s for me!

  2. #2 Michael Balter
    November 17, 2005

    From one human evolution writer to another: Congratulations on the new book, Carl!

    Michael Balter, Science

  3. #3 Jason Malloy
    November 17, 2005

    Oh yes, I’m buying this baby for myself. Christmas is too far away to wait for the gift. 🙂

  4. #4 John Sully
    November 18, 2005

    I have to say after finishing Carl’s “At the Water’s Edge” that he is one of the finest science writers I have run across. Since I just bought a copy of “Soul Becomes Flesh” I’ll have to wait a week or so to pick this one up, but trust me, I will.

  5. #5 Charlie Wagner
    November 18, 2005

    No one who has looked at the evidence objectively can deny that humans have evolved. They have evolved culturally, morphologically and technologically in the time they have been on the earth. In addition, our kinship with our other primate cousins is clear. That all primates most likely had a common origin is obvious.
    What is not obvious, however, is the mechanism by which these changes have occurred. In this matter we are still pretty much in the dark. Evolution is a process, that is strongly supported by empirical evidence. But it remains a process looking for a believable mechanism. Random mutation and natural selection are mechanisms of evolution and it is possible to accept the reality of evolution on a scientific basis and deny the claim that mutation and natural selection are capable of achieving it.
    Intelligent input is also a mechanism of evolution, without any empirical support. But it is clearly obvious to me that random mutation and natural selection are insufficient to explain the complex systems that human beings possess as well as the cultural, intellectual and social components of our collective humanity.
    What we observe in humans (and other living systems) are means adapted to ends. We see structures supporting other structures and we see processes supporting other processes. We also see that these structures and processes are integrated into functional systems in such a way that they all support the overall function of the organism.
    Science has failed to establish with empirical evidence, any kind of believable link between the trivial effects of mutation and selection and the emergence of highly organized structures, processes and systems. Some important component is missing.
    It seems to me that such a level of organization simply cannot be achieved by random processes and requires insight. Some kind of intelligent input seems necessary.
    I will however, purchase the book, and when I read it, I will be looking for your explanation regarding the evolution of humans and the organization they manifest.

  6. #6 Mike Snider
    November 18, 2005

    Charlie Wagner — I’m a poet and programmer, not a biologist, so I’ll leave your biology education to the experts. But have you ever considered the incredible complexity of the system that puts fresh Snickers bars in every drugstore in America? Mathematician John Allen Paulos has.

  7. #7 Jim Douglas
    November 18, 2005

    Howdy Carl,
    For quite sometime, since I read Water’s Edge, I’ve been curious about your educational background. Try as I might, I only find bios that list your writing experience and various accolades. I’m interested to know your actual educational background and how you came to be the popularly respected science writer we know today.

  8. #8 Doug
    November 19, 2005

    Blog entries are monitored now? Why the change? Don’t expect the engaging debates of the past to coontinue. Perhaps you want to take cheap shots at creationists with out fear of our pesky rebuttals. Your “cranky uncle” is shaking his head in disappointment.

  9. #9 Wayne Francis
    November 22, 2005

    To those that don’t know Charlie Wagner here are his beliefs on life on Earth
    1) Life on Earth was seeded by aliens
    2) All life on Earth was front loaded. This means the first life had all the genetic information it needed and all species downstream for it.
    3) These aliens are not supernatural
    4) These aliens didn’t need to evolve because they have always been
    5) The universe is infinitely old in a manner that that was always habitable (steady state model)

    Charlie shows a profound lack of understanding about Hubble red shift the CMB and many other principles of cosmology and physics.

    Just wanted people to know before they think his claims might actually be valid.

  10. #10 Bruce O
    November 28, 2005

    Just a comment to Charlie, who wrote:

    “Science has failed to establish with empirical evidence, any kind of believable link between the trivial effects of mutation and selection and the emergence of highly organized structures, processes and systems.”

    I think this criticism is patently absurd, unless Charlie ignores all the experimental, paleontological, genetic, embryological, biogeographical, etc., evidence that has accumulated over the last 150 years. Furthermore, there is absolutely NO EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE for any so-called “intelligence” capable of directing the creation of life on Earth. None. Not one shred. I’m sure if there was empirical evidence of a “higher power” by now, everyone, and I mean everyone, would have heard of it.

  11. #11 Robert Bohm
    May 24, 2006

    I just bought a book for me son. I don’t think the knopwledge they are given at school on the topic is enough.

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