Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review: Neanderthal Man, by Svante Pääbo

A very personal account of the successful attempt to map the genome of a Neanderthal, humanity's closest evolutionary link. Svante Pääbo, the project's lead researcher, necessarily mixes autobiography with procedural descriptions, with his history as a scientist and as a person informing and guiding his quest for what appears at first an impossible goal.

What the non-scientist reader (i.e., me) takes away from this book is a much clearer understanding of the ins and outs of the scientific method. Occasionally Pääbo comes upon a valuable insight through sudden inspiration, but much more often, insight arrives only through teamwork, and only after much trial and error (with a big emphasis on the error). Success in this massive and complex project came only after years of painstaking group effort, characterized by mysteries to solve, blind alleys to back out of, assumptions to re-consider, and techniques to continually refine or, sometimes, abandon.

While my eyes did glaze over at times when the science got extremely detailed, those occasions were few, and probably not Pääbo's fault - even the hard science here is presented carefully and clearly, and I found myself understanding a lot more of the specifics than I had assumed I might. (I soon learned not to bother checking the endnotes, as they consist almost entirely of journal article title references - essential for readers who wish to track the intricacies of each new research development, but they contain no real discursive content. The meat of the book is in the text itself.)

Pääbo does an admirable job of communicating both the substance and the struggle of science; politics and personalities mix with publishing and perseverance. In Neanderthal Man we learn about both an evolutionary cousin and what it takes to do successful science.

Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes
by Svante Pääbo

Basic Books, 2014
288 pages, $27.99
ISBN-10: 0465020836
ISBN-13: 978-0465020836

Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Pääbo,
with a Blueberry Hill Lager from Samuel Adams.