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The Book of Humans

A Brief History of Culture, Sex, War and the Evolution of Us

By Adam Rutherford
13-minute read
Audio available
The Book of Humans by Adam Rutherford

The Book of Humans (2018) is an accessible tour of evolutionary history. It illuminates both the many qualities we share with animals and the many others that set us apart. Incorporating the latest scientific discoveries from genetics and archaeology, it provides a thrilling compendium of the rich variety of life on Earth.

  • People seeking a primer on evolutionary biology
  • Darwin enthusiasts
  • Animal lovers

Adam Rutherford is a science writer, podcaster, and broadcaster. A regular BBC personality and frequent contributor to the Guardian, he is also the author of several books on human evolution. He holds a doctorate in genetics from University College London and is a popular speaker among both academic and lay audiences.

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The Book of Humans

A Brief History of Culture, Sex, War and the Evolution of Us

By Adam Rutherford
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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The Book of Humans by Adam Rutherford
Synopsis

The Book of Humans (2018) is an accessible tour of evolutionary history. It illuminates both the many qualities we share with animals and the many others that set us apart. Incorporating the latest scientific discoveries from genetics and archaeology, it provides a thrilling compendium of the rich variety of life on Earth.

Key idea 1 of 8

Animals use tools. But human tools are far more advanced.

What makes you human? Is it the fact that you can call up a friend and communicate in a shared and highly complex language? Is it the fact that you can learn how to use – or even make – a computer? Or is it that you, unlike any other animal, can produce and discuss art?

We humans like to think of ourselves as kings among animals, but the same evolutionary processes that made us also made them. Animals have sex, just like us. They build social structures, just like us. They even use tools in some very “human” ways. Much as we hate to admit it, we humans simply aren’t all that special.

And yet at the same time – we are. No other species has cognitive powers as sophisticated as ours; no other has a language or culture as complex as ours. There’s a paradox at the heart of our existence: we are simultaneously animals and extraordinary among animals.

The key message here is: Animals use tools. But human tools are far more advanced.

A tool is something external to an animal’s body used to extend its power. A tool can be a found object, a modified object, or something entirely manufactured – in other words, a technology. A barrette is a tool for clipping back hair. A computer is a tool for conducting arithmetic operations. 

For a long time, scientists believed we were the only animals to use tools. Now we know that’s not true.

Chimpanzees, for example, use sticks to hunt termites. Orangutans use them to fish rivers, and gorillas use them to test the depths of waters they need to ford.

Yet despite an impressive range of tool use in the animal kingdom, the prevalence of tool use is low: only 1 percent of all species use them. Technology, in other words, is relatively rare. And no other animal’s technologies are nearly as complex as ours. That’s partly because few other animals have brains as big as ours. But it’s also because no other animal is as dexterous as we are. You’re not likely to see a dolphin crafting a violin, despite its densely packed neocortex. Flippers, alas, are not as nimble as fingers.

But, flippers notwithstanding, dolphins and their creative tool use do have a lot to teach us. And that’s what we’ll explore in the next blink.

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