Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomesby Svante Paabo
What can we learn from the genomes of our closest evolutionary relatives?
Neanderthal Man tells the story of geneticist Svante Pääbo’s mission to answer this question, and recounts his ultimately successful efforts to genetically define what makes us different from our Neanderthal cousins. Beginning with the study of DNA in Egyptian/i>
What can we learn from the genomes of our closest evolutionary relatives?
Neanderthal Man tells the story of geneticist Svante Pääbo’s mission to answer this question, and recounts his ultimately successful efforts to genetically define what makes us different from our Neanderthal cousins. Beginning with the study of DNA in Egyptian mummies in the early 1980s and culminating in the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome in 2010, Neanderthal Man describes the events, intrigues, failures, and triumphs of these scientifically rich years through the lens of the pioneer and inventor of the field of ancient DNA.
We learn that Neanderthal genes offer a unique window into the lives of our hominin relatives and may hold the key to unlocking the mystery of why humans survived while Neanderthals went extinct. Drawing on genetic and fossil clues, Pääbo explores what is known about the origin of modern humans and their relationship to the Neanderthals and describes the fierce debate surrounding the nature of the two species’ interactions. His findings have not only redrawn our family tree, but recast the fundamentals of human historythe biological beginnings of fully modern Homo sapiens, the direct ancestors of all people alive today.
A riveting story about a visionary researcher and the nature of scientific inquiry, Neanderthal Man offers rich insight into the fundamental question of who we are.
In 2010, Pääbo, the head of a team of more than 50 collaborators, published a landmark scientific paper that changed the way we think about human evolution. For the first time, the genome of an extinct form of human, a Neanderthal, was sequenced and offered to the world. Pääbo passionately chronicles his personal story, from graduate school through the culmination of the Neanderthal project 30 years later, and the scientific implications of this exciting research. Readers will despair with him over technical setbacks, agonize over possible methodological complications, and celebrate his final success. In accessible prose, Pääbo presents the science so that laypersons will understand the nature and import of his work. But it’s his discussion of the scientific process that steals the show. As he explains, “Science is far from the objective and impartial search for incontrovertible truths that nonscientists might imagine.” He discusses what it took to build a case tight enough to convince even the most skeptical of colleagues and he goes on to demonstrate that scientific knowledge is cumulative and ever-evolving, explaining why he freely released the entire genome: “I wanted everyone to be able to check every detail of what we had done. And I wanted them to do a better job if they could.” (Feb.)
“Pääbo provides a riveting, personal account of the development of paleogenetics and the technical revolution that made the field possible.... Whether unacquainted with Pääbo’s work or regular followers of his publications, readers will find that Neanderthal Man provides a nonpareil account of the development of the field of ancient DNA.”
“Pääbo’s book is well worth adding to your Summer reading list.”
John Farrell, Forbes.com
“In Neanderthal Man Pääbo offers a fascinating account of the three decades of research that led from a secret hobby to a scientific milestone.... Neanderthal Man is a revealing history of a new scientific field.”
Carl Zimmer, New York Times Book Review
“Pääbo has provided us with a fabulous account of three decade of research into ancient DNA, culminating in 2010 with the publication of the Neanderthal genome.... Pääbo’s book has to be compared to The Double Helix (1968), James Watson’s brilliant but controversial account of how the structure of DNA was discovered. When taken together they provide an insight into how bio-molecular science has both changed and remained much the same during the last half-century. Both are strong personal accounts of scientific discovery, exposing how science is driven as much by passion, ambition, and competition as by rational thought and the sharing of knowledge. In both books the reader is gripped by life stories of far greater interest than those in may novels before being plunged into passages of near-unintelligible science (despite much simplification) that are nevertheless strangely enthralling.”
Steven Mithen, New York Review of Books
“This is the fascinating account of Svante Pääbo’s efforts to sequence Neanderthal nuclear DNA.... [H]is personal story, from graduate to world-renowned scientist, make this a very enjoyable book.... The study of Neanderthals has kept palaeontologists occupied for more than a century, but Pääbo convinces us that decoding their DNA will provide insights into how different we are from them and what makes us so unique.”
“[An] engaging book.... Neanderthal Man is devotedand devoted is definitely the wordto the years-long ancient DNA project to sequence the Neanderthal genome. Pääbo and his far-flung team did that to an accuracy that exceeds most of the contemporary genomes being sequenced today.... Before I read Neanderthal Man, I thought I knew something about contamination of ancient DNA. In fact, though, I had no clue. No matter how well informed you are about genetics, Svante Pääbo will teach you things.”
Tabitha Powledge, PLOS Blogs / On Science Blogs
“I came for the cavemen, but I stayed for the geeky nail-biter of a story about doing historic science in a climate of fierce international competition and rapid technological innovation.... Truth be told, DNA sequencing is pretty wonky stuff, but perhaps it’s Pääbo’s own passionate investment in the undertaking that makes his story so exciting to read about; Neanderthal Man does for paleogenetics something like what Steven Spielberg did for the legislative process in Lincoln.... [T]his book is a vibrant testimonial to what might be the greatest creation of modern humans: the scientific method.”
Laura Miller, Salon
“Much of Pääbo’s book is devoted to the details of the difficulties [of extracting DNA from ancient bones], and how they were overcome by an awesome combination of technology, ingenuity and persistence. It’s a story of how modern high-concept science is done, shot through with the crackle of problem-solving and the hum of project tension, with occasional riffs of annoyance about major scientific journals and people who want dinosaur DNA.”
The Independent (UK)
“[A]n excellent glimpse into how modern science proceeds as a global, social activity.... Pääbo has to navigate through collaborators and competitors (including people who spend time in both categories), guardians of the bones he wants to grind into dust, touchy issues of nationalism, and more. In the process, he helps found a new research institute and builds a team dedicated to studying ancient DNA. If anyone doubts that science is a social activity, the doubt won’t survive reading this book.... Pääbo paints a picture of how a major scientific advance rose out of a mix of politics, persuasion, careful management, and struggles with technology and technique. For that alone, it’s valuable.”
“If there is one name associated with ancient DNA, it is Svante Pääbo.... Pääbo pioneered and has largely led the field for the past three decades. His book, Neanderthal Man, is perfectly timed, beautifully written and required readingit is a window onto the genesis of a whole new way of thinking.”
“If Pääbo weren’t such a good storyteller, the book might have bogged down with descriptions of things like the different techniques of polymerase chain reaction, and all it takes to build a clean lab. But he’s a clever enough writer to keep the reader’s attention with a fast-paced story and wonderful details.”
“This is a fascinating story of how modern science and especially computer technology is opening vistas onto our prehistoric history.”
The Explorers Journal
“Pääbo provides a fascinating look at how his personal life intersected with the founding of a scientific field that has revolutionized evolution.”
“In Neanderthal Man, Svante Pääbo offers readers a front-row seat to the still-unfolding understanding of this enigmatic human ancestor by recounting his own years of work.... Pääbo quite candidly relays the doubts and challenges that accompanied more than a decade of discoverya labor that elevated Neanderthals from troglodyte brutes inhabiting a dead-end branch of the human family tree to a complex species that interbred with other hominins, including Homo sapiens. Never one to shy away from provocative statements or even-more-provocative research, Pääbo gives what appears to be an honest and open account of his pioneering studies of Neanderthal genetics.”
“Evolutionary biologists are, general, pretty interesting people to talk to, but rarely would you describe their lives as thrilling. The notion of combining an autobiography with a popular science book may therefore not seem especially compelling. However, in this case both the author and the science are quite extraordinary, and inextricably linked.”
Evening Standard (UK)
“Pääbo’s tale describes a process approaching the Platonic Idea of contemporary science: a lot of very smart people collaboratively working their butts off, persisting through mistakes and failures and numbingly repetitive but essential tasks and political machinations and technological inadequacies because they believe the Truth is Out There. And finally finding it. Others have not yet weighed in, and this being top-level and therefore monumentally competitive science, contrarians may well emerge. But if the Neanderthal genome project was anything like what Pääbo describes, we are damn lucky.”
Tabitha Powledge, Genetic Literacy Project
“Pääbo passionately chronicles his personal story, from graduate school through the culmination of the Neanderthal project 30 years later, and the scientific implications of this exciting research.... In accessible prose, Pääbo presents the science so that laypersons will understand the nature and import of his work. But it’s his discussion of the scientific process that steals the show.... He discusses what it took to build a case tight enough to convince even the most skeptical of colleagues and he goes on to demonstrate that scientific knowledge is cumulative and ever-evolving.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review
“[A] revealing glimpse into the inner workings of scientific research.... Since Neanderthals are our closest evolutionary relatives, the author’s work in decoding Neanderthal DNA gives scientists a way to understand how we differ genetically from them and offers the opportunity to learn what genetic changes have made humans unique on this planet.”
"The tale Pääbo tells is largely one of technological improvement enabling the elimination of contamination and speeding up the sequencing process. Secondarily, it’s about creating scientific foundations and multinational scientific cooperation to pursue the promises of research into ancient DNA, including that of nonhuman species as well as hominins.”
“It is a rare thing to read about an important development in science by its principal innovator, written in the spirit and style in which the research unfolded. Neanderthal Man is a dispatch from the front, and if you want to learn how real science is really done, I suggest you read it.”
Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor, Emeritus, Harvard University
“Svante Pääbo’s Neanderthal Man is the incredible personal story of one man’s quest for our human origins using the latest genome sequence tools. Pääbo takes us through his exciting journey to first extract DNA from ancient bones then sequence it to give us the first real glance at our human ancestors, and showing ultimately that early humans and Neanderthals interbred to produce modern humans. This is science at its best and reinforces that contained in each of our genomes is the history of humanity.”
J. Craig Venter, Chairman and President, J. Craig Venter Institute
“Svante Pääbo, a major architect in the study of paleo-DNA, has written a personal, insightful and sometimes very frank book about his relentless quest to understand the human family tree. The first scholar to extract genetic material from Neanderthals, Pääbo writes candidly about the seemingly insurmountable trials and tribulations he had to overcome to give us intriguing new insights into human origins.”
Donald Johanson, Founding Director of the Institute of Human Origins, Arizona State University, and author of Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind
“Problem by problem, solution by solution, Paäbo’s gripping account of the discovery of our relationship with Neanderthals brilliantly conveys the thrill and reality of today’s big science and the excitement of a major breakthrough.”
Richard Wrangham, Professor of Biological Anthropology, Harvard University, and author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
“Neanderthal Man opens with this episode [when Pääbo and his team first sequenced Neanderthal DNA], and it’s a nice touch by Pääbo, bringing us straight to the moment when his long, painstaking effort to tease ancient DNA out of hominin fossils yielded its first dramatic results.”
David Quammen, Harper's
Paabo (director, dept. of genetics, Max Planck Inst. for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig) presents a scientific memoir of his—and his colleagues'—work in paleogenetics as they seek to learn more about those humans who populated the Northern Hemispheres before we did: Were Neanderthals our ancestors? He relates the progress of his own career in DNA studies from his native Sweden to Germany to the University of California, Berkeley, and eventually to the recently founded Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, as he describes challenges and accomplishments in finding and identifying ancient DNA. Along the way, readers behold the complex web of cooperation and competition among scientists, the politics of submission to the top journals, and the ego in assigning species status to a discovery, as well as Paabo's lack of faith in paleontologists: they develop evolutionary theories from bone morphologies, while Paabo's ilk seek the realities of the DNA story. Yet it's clear that the retrieving, amplifying, and sequencing of ancient DNA are fraught with their own potentials for error. The technicalities of paleogenetics deepen as the chapters progress. Some readers may be forgiven if they skip ahead to the final two chapters, where the drama of Denisovan discoveries is palpable. VERDICT Scientific understanding of earlier humans is fast evolving. For the nonce, this is a go-to volume on the subject for serious readers. (P.S. In spite of the title, the DNA of Neanderthal women is crucial—as Paabo well knows!)—Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal
A dense account of the efforts to decode Neanderthal DNA and a revealing glimpse into the inner workings of scientific research. Pääbo (Director, Department of Genetics/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology), a Swedish biologist specializing in evolutionary genetics, developed techniques for sequencing DNA from extinct creatures. After years of work, his research group succeeded in sequencing the Neanderthal genome. Since Neanderthals are our closest evolutionary relatives, the author's work in decoding Neanderthal DNA gives scientists a way to understand how we differ genetically from them and offers the opportunity to learn what genetic changes have made humans unique on this planet. At first, Pääbo faced enormous difficulties, and he relates how he assembled a team of researchers with the right talents, how specimens were obtained, how they coped with the serious matter of contamination, how they dealt with numerous technical problems, and how high-throughput DNA sequencing helped them to coax DNA from ancient bones. As he makes clear, science is a social endeavor in which both competition and cooperation operate, and he does not hide his anxiety about getting his findings published first. His Neanderthal genome paper, published in 2010, received wide attention from scientists and nonscientists alike, and the debate about the interactions between our ancestors and Neanderthals continues. Questions remain: Why did Neanderthals go extinct, and why is Neanderthal DNA present in small amounts in modern humans? In a chapter that feels like a late add-on, Pääbo explores the story of the bones of a different kind of extinct human found in Denisova Cave in Siberia in 2010, which raises more questions about the history of human evolution. For nonscientists, grasping the details of the technical problems facing Pääbo and his research group is no easy matter, but the larger question of the significance of his work makes the book worthwhile.
- Basic Books
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Meet the Author
Svante Pääbo is the founder of the field of ancient DNA. The director of the department of genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Pääbo has been featured in the New York Times, Newsweek, National Geographic, and The Economist, as well as on NPR, PBS, and BBC. In 2009 Time named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. Pääbo lives in Leipzig, Germany.
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