Review: Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes

Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes
Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Pääbo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If all scientists wrote as well (and/or had editors as good) as Svante Pääbo, popular science written by scientists would easily compete with those written by journalists.

Don’t get me wrong, I have loved many science books written by journalists: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, and Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors just to name a few recent ones I’ve read. They are excellent books, well-written and researched.

When a professional in the field tells the story, be they a scientist, historian or whatever, you tend to get a different perspective: more on the inside, a bit better informed and in-depth.

Svante Pääbo does this wonderfully in Neanderthal Man. It is not only the story of the first sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, but the story of the person who lead the effort, written by that same person.

The science in it is top notch as befits a researcher at the top of the field, but what makes it hard to put down is the story. Pääbo shares the personal side of his journey to paleogenetics which is also the story of the birth and childhood of the field as well. From his youthful dreams of decoding ancient DNA to the first sequences and publishing, we see the ups and downs, the successes, frustrations, despairs, fears and ebulliences of all aspects of the scientific life: technical, cultural, competitive and social.

Science is amazing in what it has and can do for us, but we forget that it is a human endeavor and few scientists share this side of it with us (and, of course, the journalists rarely get a chance to see it). Svante Pääbo deserves high praise for wedding the stories of his amazing technical achievement with his intimate personal experience.

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