Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomesby Svante Paabo
What can we learn from the genes of our closest evolutionary relatives? Neanderthal Man tells the story of geneticist Svante Pääbo’s mission to answer that question, beginning with the study of DNA in Egyptian mummies in the early 1980s and culminating in his sequencing of the Neanderthal genome in 2009. From Pääbo, we learn how/i>
What can we learn from the genes of our closest evolutionary relatives? Neanderthal Man tells the story of geneticist Svante Pääbo’s mission to answer that question, beginning with the study of DNA in Egyptian mummies in the early 1980s and culminating in his sequencing of the Neanderthal genome in 2009. From Pääbo, we learn how 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.
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 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
“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
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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- 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)
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, 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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