A sturdy, readable contribution to the library of Indigenous origins and global migrations.

ORIGIN

A GENETIC HISTORY OF THE AMERICAS

A stroll through the history of the early peopling of the Americas, blending ethnography, paleontology, and genetics.

Raff, a geneticist and professor of anthropology, opens with the discovery of ancient human bones in a cave in the Pacific Northwest, a discovery that, not long ago, would have occasioned the descent of a swarm of archaeologists to excavate—never mind the wishes of the Indigenous people nearby. Now those Native people—in this case, Tlingit and Haida—are involved, deliberating how to approach the study of the bones. In this instance, the remains supported their beliefs “that their ancestors were a seafaring people who have lived in this region since the dawn of history.” At least one wave, perhaps the earliest, of humans in the Americas was made up of people from northeastern Asia who traveled on open water well before most current chronologies begin. Such facts are adduced by archaeological fieldwork but also by ethnographers beginning to pay closer attention to Indigenous origin stories and by scientists working in labs to sequence DNA, extracting it from long-buried bone. Raff writes clearly and well, but sometimes we encounter knotty technical problems, as with her formulation, “X2a is of a comparable age to other indigenous American haplogroups (A, B, C, D), which would not be true if it were derived from a separate migration from Europe.” Along the way, the author raises as many questions as she answers. So-called Kennewick Man, hailed by White supremacists a quarter-century ago as proof that Europeans got to the Americas first, is certainly ancestral to Native people, for one: “There is no conceivable scenario under which Kennewick Man could have inherited just his mitochondrial genome from Solutreans but the rest of his genome from Beringians.” So where did he come from? Readers with a bent for human origin studies will enjoy puzzling out such things with Raff.

A sturdy, readable contribution to the library of Indigenous origins and global migrations.

Pub Date: Feb. 8, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-5387-4971-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Twelve

Review Posted Online: Nov. 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2021

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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A solid foundational education in a handful of lively scientific topics.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE UNIVERSE

Two science podcasters answer their mail.

In this illustrated follow-up to We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe (2017), Cham, a cartoonist and former research associate and instructor at Caltech, and Whiteson, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine, explain the basic science behind subjects that seem to preoccupy the listeners of their podcast, Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe. Most of the questions involve physics or astrophysics and take the form of, is such-and-such possible?—e.g., teleportation, alien visitors, building a warp drive, entering a black hole). The authors emphasize that they are answering as scientists, not engineers. “A physicist will say something is possible if they don’t know of a law of physics that prevents it.” Thus, a spaceship traveling fast enough to reach the nearest star in a reasonable amount of time is not forbidden by the laws of physics, but building one is inconceivable. Similarly, wormholes and time travel are “not known to be impossible”—as are many other scenarios. Some distressing events are guaranteed. An asteroid will strike the Earth, the sun will explode, and the human race will become extinct, but studies reveal that none are immediate threats. Sadly, making Mars as habitable as Earth is possible but only with improbably futuristic technology. For those who suspect that we are living in a computer simulation, the authors describe what clues to look for. Readers may worry that the authors step beyond their expertise when they include chapters on the existence of an afterlife or the question of free will. Sticking closely to hard science, they deliver a lucid overview of brain function and the debate over the existence of alternate universes that is unlikely to provoke controversy. The authors’ work fits neatly into the recently burgeoning market of breezy pop-science books full of jokes, asides, and cartoons that serve as introductions to concepts that require much further study to fully understand.

A solid foundational education in a handful of lively scientific topics.

Pub Date: Nov. 2, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-18931-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Sept. 7, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2021

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