Sunday, September 13, 2015

Neanderthal Man by Savante Paabo

Svante Paabo is a scientist who created and led a research team that uses genetic information to uncover the human past. Among their achievements to date are: 1) Isolating the first fragments of Neanderthal DNA. 2) Mapping the Neanderthal genome (the first complete genome sequenced from an extinct form of human). 3) Showing that there is Neanderthal DNA in the Homo Sapien genome. 4) Identifying that the Denisova Cave remains (discovered by archaeologist Anatoly Derevianko) were of a previously unknown species of hominid. The work of this team, under Paabo’s leadership, confirms the merit of applying genetic science to our study of the human evolutionary past.

Neanderthal Man is a memoir, a lesson in applied genetics and an exciting tale of discovery. It follows the career of one of the most influential paleogeneticists, from his college years through the aforementioned discoveries. Paabo is aware that he is writing for scientists and laypeople alike. Professional information is explained in a clear, methodical manner. The author first lays the groundwork for understanding basic genetics. Paabo then explains how the most advanced technologies for extracting DNA work. He then describes how he and his team employed these technologies to isolate DNA from Neanderthal bones. For the non-scientist, the internet provides important elucidation. Whether one’s interest is in genetics, human evolution or, more generally, to broaden personal knowledge, Neanderthal Man will provide enriching information.

As a memoir, the book is surprisingly frank. Paabo discusses his opinions of his colleagues, his bisexuality, and his political maneuvering in the scientific community. Characterizations can be amusingly blunt: “In charge of the Vindija collection was Maja Paunovic, a woman of a certain age…friendly enough but understandably dour—no doubt aware that science had passed her by” (Paabo, pp. 77-78). The author unselfconsciously discusses getting drunk with fellow geneticists, fretting about other researchers publishing first, romantic relationships with both sexes, and influencing “distinguished colleagues” by taking “advantage of their vanity” (Paabo, p. 217). It is a refreshingly honest look at work and self.

General non-fiction and science readers crave information and understanding. Svante Paabo’s Neanderthal Man is the kind of book for which we wait. It is a unique tome of new information. The reader learns a great deal while observing the paleogeneticists making discoveries about DNA and humanity’s place in nature. For those whose desire is to learn, a story where talented scientists are advancing humanity’s knowledge is an absorbing read. It makes one feel optimistic about the abilities of our species.


Paabo, Svante. Neanderthal Man. New York: Basic Books, 2014.