Your Ultimate Human Evolution Book Guide
Finally, a reading list that doesn’t include Sapiens
Where we came from and how we came to be have been central questions of the natural sciences and philosophy for centuries. When Charles Darwin published his earth-shattering theory of evolution by natural selection in 1859, human origins were no longer the realm of religious doctrine, but now in the realm of science.
Provocative human ancestor fossils have been growing our family tree for well over a century, but in the last 20 years since the human genome has been sequenced, we’ve made remarkable progress in understanding human origins and our evolution since our split with the chimpanzee line around 8 million years ago.
This month’s curated reading list centers on human evolution, providing several books that can give you a solid foundation from which to understand human evolution. This list is not geared toward psychology specifically (another list for another month), but rather on a fundamental understanding of how we became that last human standing.
Evolution’s Bite (2017)
When you think about human evolution, your mind may not immediately go to thinking about our teeth and jaw structures, but such fossils are quite common and incredibly informative. In Evolution's Bite: A Story Of Teeth, Diet, And Human Origins, Peter Ungar details what we can learn about human evolution through the study of our teeth. They give us information about what we ate, the climate we lived in, and by extension, some indication of our behavior and habits, too. Evolution’s Bite is a quick and informative read to gain a new vantage point from which to view our evolutionary history.
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (2017)
I still remember reading this book and being awed by the wealth of information Adam Rutherford provides. A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes. In 2018 when I read this book, I had just begun reading intently about human genetics and A Brief History was a phenomenal introduction to the complex and intertwined evolution of us and our fellow human relatives (who are now all extinct). I’m especially interested to read more on the peopling of the Americas, of which Jennifer Raff’s new book, Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas, will surely be a great follow up.
Not sure how many lists of mine this book will end up on, but Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding by Daniel Lieberman is one of my favorite science books of all time and will surely turn out to be one of my most recommended books ever. Exercised not only gives you phenomenally interesting information about how humans physically evolved but also enormously practical insight into keeping yourself physically healthy. This is the only science book that prompted a habitual change in behavior, from which I am now more physically fit and healthy than ever before because of my better understanding of our evolution.
A Story of Us (2021)
What did human life look like across our evolutionary history? What have we learned in the last 50 years about human evolution and behavior? In A Story of Us: A New Look at Human Evolution, Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson provide a unique story perspective of human evolution. By beginning each chapter with an evidence-based scene from out past, and then following it with the research evidence supporting it, Newson and Richerson provide a comprehensive overview of what know about our evolutionary history. This is a perfect book for building a foundation of our evolution, and could even be used in courses focused on evolution and human behavior.
Who We Are and How We Got Here (2018)
Following up on Rutherford’s 2017 book, Ancient DNA expert David Reich wrote Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past the next year. What makes this book so intriguing is that Reich runs one of the most extensive and productive ancient DNA labs in the world, resulting in a detailed first-hand look at what the remarkable ancient DNA research tells us about human evolution and human origins. The incredible diversity of human genetics across the world, especially in places like Africa and India indicate that we have so much more to learn, and hopefully increased access and equity to this technology and data will continue to yield profound insights.
The Goodness Paradox (2019)
The age old question of whether humans are innately violent or cooperative is a poor one. It’s clear now that we are both. But why? In The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution, Richard Wrangham provides a provocative look into the relationship between both behaviors across our evolution. Although humans can enact violence on a greater scale of destruction than any other animal, we also enforce norms, punish accordingly, and crowd small spaces with hundreds or thousands of other humans peacefully. I specifically loved this book and his “self-domestication hypothesis” he outlines in The Goodness Paradox – absolutely a book worth reading!
Sediments of Time (2020)
The Leakey family is one of the most prolific in the discovery of ancient human fossils. And in Sediments of Time: My Lifelong Search for the Past Meave Leakey (along with her daughter, Samira Leakey) tell the story of her and her late husband Richard Leakey as they make countless discoveries of human species at their field site in Kenya over the course of their career. Their field work is responsible for so much of our understanding of human origins and evolution – a must read. Part memoir, part science history, Sediments of Time was a phenomenal book that I didn’t want to put down.
How We Do it (2013)
Rounding out the list is a relatively older book, How We Do It: The Evolution and Future of Human Reproduction by Robert Martin. I first read this book the summer before I started graduate school and recall it providing a fantastic overview of the basics of sexual reproduction and early child rearing. For those just starting out in their study of human evolution and sexuality, this is a great book to build a foundation of knowledge and learn about what child rearing looked like pre-civilization.
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