Human evolution and astrophysics share more than might be obvious at first glance - both address the "big" questions about existence, both fascinate the non-specialist while appearing bewilderingly complex and self-contradictory. Bill Bryson in his excellent A Short History of Nearly Everything says he was ready to be befuddled by astrophysics but the area of science that took him by surprise by its difficulty was human evolution. The plethora of popular science titles available on the subject shows the enduring appeal of human evolution, but of course quantity does not equal quality.
Many books suffer from a tendency to deal with the human evolutionary process as a simple story that suggests an inevitability about "us" that is unwarranted, given our understanding of Darwinian evolution.
To do otherwise requires a deft touch and the confidence to tackle such a complex area head on; on his past record, Ian Tattersall has both in abundance. He is one of the grandees of the human evolutionary world, and any new book by him demands attention.
The stated aim of this new series of books is to provide an informed, lively and up-to-date view of the world that differs from "old" world histories. How then does this book match up to the intention?
The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE is a big book that covers a mere 143 pages. Starting with the appearance of our most distant ancestors about 7 million years ago, it takes the reader through the major evolutionary developments, always pausing to explain how we know what we know and why it is important. Ultimately our understanding of human evolution is rather like a patchwork blanket: small pieces of information taken from fossils, genetics, geology, archaeology and so on are stitched together to produce something greater than the sum of its parts.
It would be easy to fail to convey how and why this is central to the subject, but Tattersall deftly avoids this pitfall. The end product is a comprehensive yet accessible review of the current state of human evolution.
This book is not flawless, and a major failing is the attempt to take this new history up to 4000 BCE, when in reality the past 6,000 years are given a mere 16 pages. An entire volume covering this period would have made more logical sense and better laid the foundations for the rest of the series.
This is of course an editorial misjudgment, as the treatment Tattersall gives to this period is, as ever, balanced and well thought out.
The section containing websites is as always something of a curate's egg - while they remain active all is good, but the dynamism of the web means that broken links occur with incredible speed.
Likewise the further reading section is comprehensive, but the omission of Roger Lewin and Robert Foley's excellent Principles of Human Evolution, unequivocally the next step for the interested reader, is a curious oversight.
Ultimately how good is this book? Pleasingly, the answer is that it is very good. It takes a complex subject and produces a gripping read while covering the major themes of human evolution with a refreshing confidence that will allow readers to put down the book safe in the knowledge that they have been treated to a masterclass in the current understanding of human evolution.
The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE (The New Oxford World History)
By Ian Tattersall
Oxford University Press
£35.99 and £10.99
ISBN 9780195167122 and 5333152
Published 14 February 2008