Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Paabo (Basic Books, 2014)
Neanderthals manage to capture imagination through a celebrity status that few fossil species can dream of. Neanderthals entered the world of natural history through Johann Carl Fuhlrott’s 1856 fossil discovery in Germany and then appeared in Thomas Huxley’s 1863 scientific treatise Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature. One hundred and fifty years post-Huxley, geneticist Svante Paabo explores a new type of human evolution research; Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes details Paabo’s work with ancient DNA.
It’s hard to find a hominin species that so completely straddles the boundary between the sciences and the humanities. Certainly, the middle ground of murky metaphysics would seem to help explain the practically unending public and scientific interest in all-things-Neanderthal, from their genes to their culture. Indeed, there’s something fantastically tempestuous about how we think about Neanderthals—they seem to function in evolution as a phylogenetic foil, playing Caliban to our Aerial self-perception.
Full review available at New York Journal of Books.