The Incredible Unlikeliness Of Being
by Alice RobertsAlice Roberts adopts an attitude of wide-eyed wonder in this account of human biology and development. Starting at conception, this book examines how we come to be, and what we have in common with creatures such as sea squirts, starfish, tiny ancient species, and closer relatives such as the great apes.
The story begins with how sperm fertilise eggs, and the unlikelihood of any one sperm winning the race to live. There's a digression to explain how this process was misunderstood before microscopes came along. Then the author looks at how a cluster of cells folds over to form a neural tube, a spine, and eventually all the differentiated parts of a person or animal.
The book is then structured by going through the body and examining the development of each part. Alice Roberts discusses the difficulty of accurately mapping the brain and what each area is responsible for. She looks at skull development from the perspectives of prehistory and then child development, adding in some interesting stories about ancient cultural attitudes to skull shapes, before tackling how eyes evolved. Very early mammal embryos resemble fish, and the stages of embryonic development tell us a lot about evolutionary history. Fruit flies tells us about genes and how segmented bodies evolved, whilst there's a story to be told by our curved spinal structure in terms of how we have adapted to different habitats. The quirks of rib shape, for instance, tell us how different species climbed trees and how well adapted they are to walking.
The book then examines the gut, reproductive organs, limbs, feet, ankles, running and bone mass, the skeleton, and hands. Each of these sections is accompanied by fascinating facts and recent scientific discoveries. The style of writing is accessible, and it stays fun in part because modern biology and evolutionary history are delivered in a conversational style without getting too dry.
The black and white illustrations are clear and easy to load on an ebook, and there are a good number of them to break up the text.
This is a fascinating book, and its great strength is in its details. Did you know that everyone has had a hernia, or why we evolved to have the number of limbs we do and not, say, six or eight? The Incredible Unlikeliness Of Being is both entertaining and enlightening. Alice Roberts makes this look easy, but only because the book is is meticulously researched and written.
2nd July 2017
Review © Ros Jackson
Source: own copy