Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Favourite science writing: Sleeping with Neanderthals

Elizabeth Kolbert explores what enabled humans to take over the world, while our cousins are caged in zoos or long extinct

Museum exhibit showing a Neanderthal family
They were so similar to us that we desired them, producing half-Neanderthal, half-human children. Photograph: Nikola Solic/Reuters/Corbis
It helps that it's an utterly intriguing subject: what defines us as human? But really, Elizabeth Kolbert could make anything interesting, and this feature-length article, ostensibly about the attempt to sequence the Neanderthal genome, uses her trademark personal insight and riveting narrative style.

Kolbert so skillfully manages the tricky task of weaving several concurrent stories through the one feature, that the reader is hardly aware of the jumps in a long piece that flows without crossheads or text-breakouts. Through it, she includes a profile of palaeogeneticist Svante Pääbo, the unfolding genetic and developmental story of human evolution, and the creation of fast-throughput genetic analysis, all infused within the central philosophical and scientific question of what it means to be human. Why are we so special? What enabled us to take over the world while our cousins are caged in zoos or extinct?

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