The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being, Alice Roberts. New York: Heron Books, 2014.
Summary: An evolutionary account of human embryological development from even before conception through birth and of human anatomy and its evolutionary antecedents.
This review should probably come with a “trigger warning”. The book I am reviewing here may offend some of the Christians I count friends whose beliefs about human origins exclude any form of evolutionary explanations. Alice Roberts unashamedly advocates a thoroughly evolutionary explanation for human origins, embryology, and anatomy. She takes swipes at “creationist” and “intelligent design” explanations at several points.
I give this warning for two reasons. One is to let you know in advance that this review and blog is not a site for debates about evolution vs. creation (and comments that seek to do so will be taken down). You should write the author! The second is to suggest that if you are not interested in reading ideas that you might not agree with or be displeased with, you may not wish to go further.
On the other hand, if you are interested in what a thorough-going evolutionary anatomist and physician would say about our development and the evidence she would invoke in our embryology and physical anatomy, then you are in for a fascinating read.
She begins at the beginning of us, how human conception occurs and how the embryo begins to develop. She explores how human embryos in their earliest stages, successive stages reflect our evolutionary origins as sea creatures, and only in later development do our distinctive human features express themselves.
She then considers our development from head to foot alternating between embryological development and how she thinks our particular anatomical distinctives evolved. She begins with our unusually large brains (in relation to our body size) and the distinctive shape of our skulls both to accommodate that brain, and our binocular vision as the foremost of our senses.
As a singer, her account of the human voice box and the differences between male and female voices and even our differing abilities to form certain vowel sounds was intriguing. Our S-shaped spine reflects both the segmented bodies of our evolutionary forebears, and evolutionary adaptation to walking on two feet (and some design compromises in our lumbar vertebrae that result in chronic back pain in a good part of our population). She gives similar treatment of heart, lungs, and digestive tract, showing how similar we are to other species.
Her discussion of the development of male and female genitalia, how sexual distinctions between male and female develop (and how at an early stage of embryological development we were the same) is illuminating for understanding both our commonality and distinctiveness as men and women.
She then explores our arms, legs, pelvis, shoulders, feet and hands. Have you thought about what it takes to make a shoulder join capable of throwing and climbing? Or hold your arm out palm down and turn over your hand and note how your whole forearm rotates. And there is the design compromise between the circumferance of the neonate head, and the size of the birth canal, basically the same–10 centimeters. Yet a wider pelvis would have affected the efficiency of a woman’s walking gait.
Roberts would say we are fearfully and (mostly) wonderfully evolved. What is striking to me is how well she captures that wonder in this book. I found myself marveling again and again how our bodies develop in all their complexity from a single fertilized egg. She would also say our human distinctiveness, apart from our cognitive abilities is only a matter of degree. And she concludes with acknowledging how lucky each of us are to be here, and even our species with its cognitive capacities.
What I regret is the lack of acknowledgement of the possibility of any providential involvement in our emergence as a species. It is the mirror image of the unwillingness of others to consider with an open mind the evidence for evolutionary origins. Roberts captures the wonder of who we are and even advocates for our significant role in the sustenance of the planet. It almost sounds like echoes of a sense of purpose for our existence. Quite a stretch if all we are is lucky chances.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”