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on 23 August 2010
These Short Introductions are a bit of a mixed bag. This one is absolutely excellent. It's well laid out with very clear chapters entitled:

Finding our place
Fossil hominins: their discovery and context
Fossil hominins: analysis and interpretation
Early hominins: possible and probable
Archaic and transitional hominins
Pre-modern Homo
Modern Homo

Strangely, it has the same diagram of different hominins repeated three times in the book, each with with different titles. It seems to be a copy-editing error but is actually rather useful!

The writing is clear and lucid and a joy to read. It's always a great reading pleasure when you come across a factual author who can actually 'write'.

The author, Bernard Wood, has impeccable qualifications:
he is Professor of Human Origins at George Washington University and a Senior Scientist in the Human Origins Programme of the Smithsonian Institute. He is a medically qualified palaeoanthropologist and was on Richard Leakey's first expedition to Lake Rudolph in 1968 and has pursued research in the field ever since.

The book was published in 2005, so will need an update soon but, meanwhile, I highly recommend it as an introduction to a fascinating subject about which we know so little.
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Human Evolution: A very short introduction, by Bernard Wood, Oxford, 2005, 144 ff.

The biology of human evolution
By Howard A. Jones

Though this is another admirable publication in Oxford's Very Short Introduction series, generally intended for readership by non-specialists, the degree of biological detail here make this more suitable for undergraduate biologists with an interest in paleoanthropology. The author is himself a medically qualified paleoanthropologist, a Professor of Human Origins at the George Washington University in America, so there is much, perhaps necessarily, anatomical detail about the fossil human remains that have been unearthed.

After an introduction that takes us from biblical accounts of our origins, through the work of Vesalius, Lamarck, Darwin, Huxley, Lyell and Mendel, right up to Watson and Crick and the human genome project, we are treated to a discussion of the biological differentiation of humans (hominins) and panins, gorillas and orang-utans - our genetic similarities and anatomical differences.

There are details of oxygen isotope measurement as a guide to past climates; methods of dating fossils and the sediments or rocks in which they are found; and how the age and sex of hominins is determined from the skeletal fragments that anthropologists usually have to be content with. The author points out that while `modern humans have a substantial fossil record . . . the fossil record for chimpanzees [our genetically nearest animal relatives] is virtually non-existent.' So the story is largely one of intelligent piecing together of our ancestry from what remains there are.

It was Darwin who first suggested that, as we are probably related to the apes and they exist largely in Africa, this would be a good place to start looking for human remains. Modern biologists tell us that indeed we did, in the beginning, `come out of Africa'.

This is a well-written book full of fascinating, if at times a little overwhelming, detail. The book about Evolution in general by the Charlesworths in the same series is more accessible to the non-specialist.

Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books of Winchester, UK.

Evolution: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
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This book is everything that the VSI (Very Short Introductions) are supposed to be: it's short, it's to the point and it's up-to-date. It reviews all the major events in the history of thought on human evolution, as well as all the major landmarks of that evolution as we understand them today. When there are several differing interpretations of fossil evidence, Wood impartially points out all the strengths and weaknesses of different positions. Although this is not a book on evolution in general, the early chapters position human evolution within the context of primate evolution, and even more briefly, under the evolution of life. For the review of evolution in general, "Evolution: A Very Short Introduction" would be an excellent choice.
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on 17 May 2009
If you're looking for a short and comprehensible guide to hominin evolution start here. This is an excellent guide to the bewildering array of species leading up to homo sapiens. What it doesn't do - and this point is clearly made - is look at hominin behaviour, but that's not really what I was after. The summary of theories surrounding 'Recent Out of Africa' (or 'Out of Africa 2') is also very clear.
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The Very Short Introduction series are written by professors of the subject and are aimed at provoking cross-discipline intrigue in the reader that may incite further investigation and reading - and boy are they good at achieving exactly that; often they leave more questions than answers.

Human Evolution sounds like it was going argue some of the reasons we are the way we are today, the specialisations that allowed us to become the dominant species on the planet. However it actually reads a lot like a chronological list of the fossil finds that have enabled us to find our correct position on the Tree of Life (ToL). Whilst this is not inherently bad or unuseful, it is pretty dry reading when you have 60 pages of a 115 page A6 book dedicated to pinning down the exact Carl Linnaeus nomenclature of our species. I was actually a lot more interested to read about when we lost our tails or prehensile feet or some other such morphological aspect.

Instead, it is rather obvious that we do not know a lot for sure about our fossil record, finds are patchy and incomplete and sometimes we get pretty confused about whether we are looking at hominins or pannins. Resultantly a lot of this book is pure postulation over the geographical route of our development and the reasons for it. I am not suggesting I could do better, but it does mean a lot of the book is pure conjecture. We have the same diagram repeated three times and pretty much every visualisation of our position on the ToL possible as well.

Recommended for what it is; a comprehensive list of the hominin finds that have shaped our [limited] understanding of the genesis of our species, but of limited interest to someone outside of the anthropology crowd.
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on 23 March 2014
The fact that the author had to produce a relatively short book has probably been advantageous in this case. Research into human evolution is very complex and a constant stream of new evidence, plus differences of opinion amongst scientists produce an ever changing picture. But this book effectively offers a basic introduction to the first time reader on the subject, whilst recognising some areas where evidence is lacking or there are differing opinions amongst researchers. It is very easy to read and sticks to the most important information without wasting words. Recommended.
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on 11 May 2013
I found this an excellent starter that sorts the bewilderingly huge number of human and pre-human species into just 4 main categories. Four is memorisable. You can refine your understanding later.
I normally like my science books to be totally up-to-date, and this is dated 2005, but I don't think the general outline of HE has changed in the meantime... Definitely recommend.
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on 5 December 2014
Concise, informative and intelligent ... and up to date
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on 1 September 2014
informative just what i was looking for
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on 8 March 2016
Excellent enough essential information
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