Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, by Svante Pääbo

Simon Underdown on a gripping account of the reconstruction of the first genome recovered from an extinct human species

April 3, 2014

DNA: three letters that belie the bewildering complexity of life on Earth. From black and white photos of James Watson and Francis Crick through to The Jeremy Kyle Show’s paternity tests, the double helix has permeated all corners of the human mind. In the field of biology, the analysis of DNA has revolutionised our understanding of almost every aspect of life: human, animal, plant or microbe. One of the biggest impacts has been on our understanding of human evolution. Nearly 30 years ago, the study of human evolution was rocked by a seminal genetics paper that gave the world the concept of “mitochondrial Eve” (the hypothetical African woman from whom we all trace our ancestry). Since then, DNA has continued to muscle aside the traditional areas of anatomy and archaeology.

Biologist Svante Pääbo sets out to describe the work of his team on the production of a complete Neanderthal genome, and to place this achievement in the wider context of human evolution. It begins with an exploration of Pääbo’s PhD work with ancient DNA recovered from Egyptian mummies and his work under Allan Wilson, one of the “mitochondrial Eve” pioneers. It is here that we find one of the little gems that make the book sparkle: Wilson writes to Pääbo and mistakenly calls him “Professor”, much to his delight (I’m sure all of us who were once lowly PhD students can remember such things secretly thrilling us). It’s a very refreshing and human admission, one of many such touches throughout the book.

However, this book would not have been written had Pääbo not been responsible for the groundbreaking Neanderthal Genome Project. It’s worth pausing to reflect on how big a deal this was. In 2006, his team at the Max Planck Institute revolutionised the study of evolution when they published their reconstruction of the first genome recovered from an extinct human species. We all knew of this important project, but not until it hit the journals did the full implication of Pääbo’s accomplishment sink in. The bulk of the book deals with this journey, and it’s a real page-turner. It lays out the whole scientific process, complete with mistakes and dead ends as well as the ultimate success. As a lesson in how to “do” science and the need for scientists to be given space to dream, think and make mistakes, it is peerless. Pääbo’s highly personal account is a chatty, funny, autobiographical book, but it is always authoritative. It pulls off the trick of appealing to everyone and disappointing no one.

Part memoir, part popular science book, Neanderthal Man is a cracking read. It is especially impressive that Pääbo is not, for instance, a journalist or a bit-part player in the process: he is the main man in one of the most important developments in human evolution in the past 50 years. It’s rare to be able to read a first-hand account of science in action by the key player. (The fact that it’s also a really good book makes it seem even more improbable.) Rare? Well, yes, it’s about as likely as finding Neanderthal DNA in the first place.

Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes

By Svante Pääbo
Basic Books, 288pp, £18.99
ISBN 9780465020836
Published February 2014

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Research Assistant LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS & POLITICAL SCIENCE LSE
Lecturer in University Study Skills UNIVERSITY OF HAFR AL BATIN
Lecturer in English Language UNIVERSITY OF HAFR AL BATIN

Most Commented

question marks PhD study

Selecting the right doctorate is crucial for success. Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman share top 10 tips on how to pick a PhD

India, UK, flag

Sir Keith Burnett reflects on what he learned about international students while in India with the UK prime minister

Pencil lying on open diary

Requesting a log of daily activity means that trust between the institution and the scholar has broken down, says Toby Miller

Application for graduate job
Universities producing the most employable graduates have been ranked by companies around the world in the Global University Employability Ranking 2016
Construction workers erecting barriers

Directly linking non-EU recruitment to award levels in teaching assessment has also been under consideration, sources suggest