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



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 rich trove of science and contemporary culture.


An expert popular science account of human speech.

In his latest, New Yorker staff writer Colapinto provides an intensely researched, tightly focused, lucidly written story that is long but not too long. As the author points out, to call human speech a “miraculous feat” understates the case. All other animals “use their voices to make in-the-now proclamations about immediate survival and reproductive concerns, including expressions of fear, anger, hunger and mating urges.” Evolved perhaps 200,000 years ago, human language allows us to refer to events in the past or future and to make plans that we share with others, “to build the villages, towns, cities and nations that have given us primacy over the Planet and everything on it.” Even before birth, infants listen, their brains absorbing a dazzling array of tone, phonetics, syntax, patterns, and rules. Despite what early experts taught, language is not pre-installed in the brain at birth; babies learn it, usually accumulating a “mental dictionary” of 60,000 words by age 18. They achieve this because words are not random assemblages of digits. They carry meaning, and we are a species that craves meaning. Midway through the book, Colapinto moves from the mechanism of speech to its purpose. Darwin compared the changes languages undergo to natural selection, but the author disagrees. Over time, he maintains, changes in articulation, accent, and vocabulary have not increased but hobbled their efficiency, creating a Babel of incomprehensible tongues that pushes us apart. Observers claimed that the spread of media, from radio to the internet, would homogenize American speech, but the opposite occurred. Instant communication has combined with bitter ideological, economic, and cultural clashes to accelerate the creation of new American speech patterns. In the final chapter, Colapinto discusses political oratory, which has united Americans in the past. He gives high marks to the rhetoric of presidents such as Lincoln, Kennedy, and Reagan; however, like the majority of Americans, he considers Trump a divisive force.

A rich trove of science and contemporary culture.  

Pub Date: Jan. 26, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982128-74-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2020

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An enthusiastic appreciation of a spectacular astrophysical entity.


A short, lively account of one of the oddest and most intriguing topics in astrophysics.

Levin, a Guggenheim fellow and professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College, knows her subject well, but her goal is appreciation as much as education, and there is much to admire in a black hole. Before Einstein, writes the author, scientists believed that the force of gravity influenced the speed of moving objects. They also knew that light always travels at exactly the speed of light. This combination made no sense until 1915, when Einstein explained that gravity is not a force but a curving of space (really, space-time) near a body of matter. The more massive the matter, the greater it curves the space in its vicinity; other bodies that approach appear to bend or change speed when they are merely moving forward through distorted space-time. Einstein’s equations indicated that, above a certain mass, space-time would curve enough to double back on itself and disappear, but this was considered a mathematical curiosity until the 1960s, when objects that did just that began turning up: black holes. Light cannot emerge from a black hole, but it is not invisible. Large holes attract crowds of orbiting stars whose density produces frictional heating and intense radiation. No writer, Levin included, can contain their fascination with the event horizon, the boundary of the black hole where space-time doubles back. Nothing inside the event horizon, matter or radiation, can leave, and anything that enters is lost forever. Time slows near the horizon and then stops. The author’s discussions of the science behind her subject will enlighten those who have read similar books, perhaps the best being Marcia Bartusiak’s Black Hole (2015). Readers coming to black holes for the first time will share Levin’s wonder but may struggle with some of her explanations.

An enthusiastic appreciation of a spectacular astrophysical entity.

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-65822-1

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Aug. 25, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2020

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