How to Build a Human: In Seven Evolutionary Steps by Pamela S. Turner and illustrated by John Gurche
I often tell my first-year college students that when they start out doing research, they should begin not with the academic journals, which so many of them do, and not with the newspaper or magazine articles, but with books written for young readers. Because what they want is something that is brief, broad, shallow but informative, easy to understand. Something that strips out the overwhelming details and provides them a strong foundational understanding of the major points so that when they do eventually research more deeply, the details will make a lot more sense to them, will be “fitted into” an intellectual framework they’ve constructed for themselves. I add as well that they are lucky in that they’re currently living in a golden age of non-fiction for young readers, not only in terms of quantity but quality as well.
Exhibit A for all the above? How to Build a Human: In Seven Evolutionary Steps by Pamela S. Turner and illustrated by John Gurche. Aimed at 10-12-year-olds, and perfectly pitched for that age group, it’s also a fantastic book for not just older kids but adults as well. (And yes, if any college students out there are planning a paper on human evolution, this is where you should start).
You can get an immediate sense of Turner’s wittily engaging (but not overly jokey) tone from the table of contents, which list the seven steps as
- We Stand Up
- We Smash Rocks
- We Get Swelled Heads
- We Take a Hike
- We Invent Barbecue
- We Start Talking (and Never Shut Up)
- We Become Storytellers
That same sense of light humor is present in her introduction, where she points out that had aliens shown up 3 million years ago looking for “the brainiest species on Earth for their intergalactic zoo”, it wouldn’t have been us they would have left with, but dolphins (and for some times after that as well).
After zooming through early life in a paragraph (self-copying molecules to single-celled “blobs” to multi-cellular blobs and so on up to primates), she closes the introduction with a brief but effective foray into how evolution works. The takeaway she points to as most important is “the environment tests and the environment selects.” Beyond anatomical and social evolution, Turner’s subjects include the evolution of toolmaking and language, the use of fire, the migration out of Africa, the development of art, the impact of climate change on our development, the fallacy of race, and more.
From there it’s onto the first of the seven steps, which involve the shift to bipedalism, with Turner carefully laying out the evidence for the gradual steps it took to get to where we are now, as well as the fossil evidence from both bones and footprints, with stop-offs at some of the best known found remains such as Ardi (4.5 MYA) and Lucy (3.2 MYA). At the end of the section, Turner tells how scientists discovered “a lustrous red-brown rock now known as the Makapansgat Pebble” beside some Autralopithecus africanus fossils. A rock may not sound all that exciting, but the thing about this particular one is that it came from several miles away and was not used as a tool. In other words, it appears someone liked the way it looked, picked it up, and carried it “home” (something I’ve done myself, not to mention many more times as the parent of a small child who had me fill my pockets with “neat rocks” after every hike). Turner wonders “Did that Australopith see what we see” Then notes, “The Australopiths were not human. Yet his pebble whispers of what they might become.”
This chapter encapsulates the many strengths that run throughout the book’s 112 pages, Concision. Clarity. A level of detail that informs without confusing or overwhelming. A sense of story. An honest appraisal of what is known for certain, theorized, debated, or wholly beyond our ability to ken. A gentle humor. And, as the lines at the end indicate, a sense of empathy, of shared humanity that would be welcome no matter the target audience but is especially so in a work aimed at younger readers.
Beyond the excellence of Turner’s content and style, the book is replete with fantastic visuals: imagined images of our ancient ancestors, maps, the aforementioned Pebble, fossil skulls and other bones, helpful side-by-side visuals making it easier to understand the anatomical differences being noted, photos of discovered tools and artwork, and, at the end, a beautiful and moving series of photographs showing how “Around 40, 000 years ago … in Indonesia, someone pressed their hand against the wall of a cave … [and] blew an ochre mixture around their hand. Later, in a cave in Spain, someone else did the same. People in Australia did it, too. So did people in Africa. And so did the first Americans.” Moving from image to image was a lump-in-the-throat moment for me.
Finally, the text is followed by nearly 50 pages of notes, a fuller list of Hominins, further reading recommendations, timelines, a glossary, and an index.
I absolutely loved this book. If you’re young and just entering the fascinating world of human evolution, you couldn’t start in a better place. If you’re older and are also just starting out, the same holds true — as noted in my intro, this will give you the strong easy-to-grasp understanding of the big picture you’ll want before wading out into deeper and more treacherous waters. And if, like me, you’ve read a lot on the topic already, this is a great refresher resource, something that makes it easier to hold all those details in your mind under an overarching big picture. Highly, highly recommended.