A preeminent geneticist hunts the Neanderthal genome to answer the biggest question of them all: What does it mean to be human? What can we learn from the genes of our closest evolutionary relatives? Neanderthal Man tells the story of geneticist Svante Pbo’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 Pbo, 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, Pbo 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.
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I’m very interested in Neanderthal Man. I’ve always been intrigued by this species of hominin that appeared very well adapted to survival. They were solid, well-built folks who looked like they would be much better at toughing out an ice-age, without thermal underwear, than we puny humans. And yet they didn’t survive. We cunningly killed them off, somehow. Either by defeating them in battle or outcompeting them for resources; I’m not exactly sure how we managed it, and that is all part of the fascination.
But this book isn’t about that story. This book is in fact the autobiography of a Swedish scientist who painstakingly uncovered the Neanderthal genome by analysing samples from ancient Neanderthal bones – an incredibly difficult task. It’s a proper autobiography, with extra-marital affairs and sex on the beach, but its main focus is the epic scientific endeavour to find the genome, spread over many years and including countless tribulations and setbacks.
If I’d read the by-line of the book (‘in search of lost genomes’), then I’d probably have realised that it was not going to be about Neanderthals, how they lived, what they got up to, why they succumbed to extinction, but I didn’t. As it was, the story of the quest for the genome was still fascinating and well worth a listen.
In this book the Swedish professor, Svante Päbo, who is currently running a lab at the Max Planck institute in Leipzig, tells his tale about how he ended up sequencing the Neanderthal genome. It is a well balanced tale which contains just the right mixture of personal details (including that he is bisexual and that he had a long affair with a woman married to a colleague), and science.
To my relief Päbo skips over his early childhood and jumps straight to the time when he studied medicine in Uppsala. Having worked with DNA sequencing Päbo wondered whether DNA could be extracted from old samples. First he tried a cow liver that he had stored in the lab for some time. When he realised that this was no problem obtained tissue from an egyptian mummy (which he had been interested in for some time). Though it involved some difficulties (describes in much detail in the book), Päbo managed to extract DNA from the mummy as well. When he sent his manuscript to a professor at Berkeley, the professor, who did not realize that Päbo had not even earned his PhD, asked if he could not come and spend his sabbatical at Päbo’s laboratory. Since Päbo did not have a laboratory, he ended up going to Berkeley instead.
What impressed me most about Päbo, is how he has managed to pursue one important goal (sequence the Neanderthal genome), for more than two decades. He has approached this goal in a methodical, stepwise manner, so that in retrospect, everything makes sense. Päbo also makes an effort to describe the often advanced methods used to attain his goal. For me (I have a PhD in neuroscience but only superficial knowledge about DNA), the level was just right, however, I think that even readers who have very little prior knowledge can learn a lot.
In parallel with this scientific tale, Päbo describes the Neanderthals and the world they lived in before they went extinct 30.000 years ago. Indeed one of this book's thrills is learning what the discoveries in the laboratory says about the life of our ancestors. Fire example, it was long thought (and still believed by many), that Neanderthals were an inferior race who went entirely extinct. However Päbo's discoveries indicate that Neanderthals were dominant to us and that because of interbreeding between our race and Neanderthals, modern humans actually have some Neanderthal DNA in them (some more than others).This interplay between scientific theory and its implications, methodological developments and what it tells us about our ancestors also makes this one of the best books I have read when it comes to illustrating the scientific process. Despite his success, Päbo at least appears to maintain an all important skeptical attitude towards his own work and he is careful not to make categorical claims when they are not warranted.
All in all the Neanderthal man is an impressive scientific story told by an impressive scientist. I would not be surprised if, in a few years, Päbo receives a well earned Nobel prize.