Close Encounters with Humankind by Sang-Hee LeeClose Encounters with Humankind by Sang-Hee Lee

Close Encounters with Humankind by Sang-Hee LeeClose Encounters with Humankind (2018) is based on a collection of a series of essays by paleoanthropologist Sang-Hee Lee on human evolution published between February 2012 and December 2013 and appearing in a popular science magazine as well as a South Korean newspaper. Lee writes in a clear, conversational style and though sometimes one wishes for a bit more detail or depth, she makes for an entertaining and informative tour guide of our species’ history.

Lee eschews the usual chronological approach, with each essay instead focusing on a particular step along our evolutionary journey, placing it in historical context (as much as possible given inherent uncertainties over ascribing anything so ancient to a particular timeframe) and explaining our best theories on the topic. Lee answers the When, Why, and How with regard to stops along the way from our shared ape ancestor to hominid to Homo (including our contemporary selves) such as loss of fur, move to bipedalism, a shift from mostly vegetarian to more meat-eating, the increase in brain size, migration out of Africa, the rise of agriculture, the development of altruism, and more.

By not going in chronological order, Lee does end up repeating herself on some aspects (reference to changing brain size abound, for instance), but the repetitive information tends to be brief and also serves to cement or clarify certain points in the reader’s mind. And because the series ended in 2013 (Lee has added some updated information), those who keep up with the topic via news reports or other popularizing works might find themselves wishing Lee could have included newer discoveries or developments (it’s tough to keep up with fast-moving sciences like genetics, but even paleo-sciences have made new discoveries in the past few years). But that’s a problem for anyone writing in the sciences, and in any case, if one wishes for Lee to have more recent material in spots it’s only because she writes so clearly and easily about the topic.

The style isn’t the breezy non-fiction of, say, a Mary Roach or Bill Bryson, but more pleasantly conversational, and if, thanks to their provenance, Close Encounters with Humankind’s essays don’t go in depth, the level of detail more than suffices for basic understanding and Lee’s fluid and lucid overviews will, I imagine, inspire readers to look elsewhere for more detailed discussion of the material. And while I’m sure there are places she runs the risk of over-simplifying things (not being an expert, it’s hard to say), one rarely feels that as a layperson. Instead she shows a deft touch in knowing just how far to take the scientific detail without overwhelming the reader.

She also does a nice job of conveying the uncertainty surrounding much of the field, as well as explaining why such uncertainty arises. She’s always quick to note alternate dating, alternate theories, and the like. One of my favorite aspects of the collection, as well, is how she shows that science is not a simple march forward, a linear progression from ignorance to knowledge, but instead is often a sort of fumbling forward in the fog, two steps forward, one step backward, another step forward, two steps sideways, etc. One example is her explanation of “molecular clocks” and how the science and theories arising from it have morphed over time. Lee also does a good job of offering a balanced view of the two major competing theories of “replacement” (modern humans arose about 200, 000 years ago in Africa and then migrated outward, out-competing and replacing all other Homo species such as the Neanderthals) and multiregionalism (modern humans rose in several places at the same time, sharing genes and culture over two million years). Lee herself is a proponent of the latter, but as noted, proffers a fair and balanced explanation of both.

Close Encounters with Humankind is a highly readable, smooth, lucid, and informative overview of human evolution that makes clear at the end that humans are still evolving. An excellent, concise guide to the topic.

Published in 2018. One of Smithsonian‘s Ten Best Science Books of 2018. In this captivating bestseller, Korea’s first paleoanthropologist offers fresh insights into humanity’s dawn and evolution. What can fossilized teeth tell us about the life expectancy of our ancient ancestors? How did farming play a problematic role in the history of human evolution? How can simple geometric comparisons of skull and pelvic fossils suggest a possible origin to our social nature? And what do we truly have in common with the Neanderthals? In this captivating international bestseller, Close Encounters with Humankind, Korea’s first paleoanthropologist, Sang-Hee Lee, explores some of our greatest evolutionary questions from new and unexpected angles. Through a series of entertaining, bite-sized chapters, we gain fresh perspectives into our first hominin ancestors and ways to challenge perceptions about the traditional progression of evolution. By combining anthropological insight with exciting, cutting-edge research, Lee’s surprising conclusions shed new light on our beginnings and connect us to a faraway past. For example, our big brains may have served to set our species apart and spur our societal development, but perhaps not in the ways we have often assumed. And it’s possible that the Neanderthals, our infamous ancestors, were not the primitive beings portrayed by twentieth-century science. With Lee as our guide, we discover that from our first steps on two feet to our first forays into toolmaking and early formations of community, we have always been a species of continuous change. Close Encounters with Humankind is the perfect read for anyone curious about where we came from and what it took to get us here. As we mine the evolutionary path to the present, Lee helps us to determine where we are heading and tackles one of our most pressing scientific questions―does humanity continue to evolve?


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.