Book Review: The Incredible Human Journey by Dr Alice Roberts

You can’t help but like Dr Alice Roberts. Though best known as a co-presenter on the BBC series Coast, she has been involved in a number of other TV projects of which this was the most noteworthy. We appreciate her for the passion for her subject, her infectious smile and childlike excitement as well as a reluctant sex symbol for men who like nerdy, intelligent women with an inner child for anthropology. It must be noted that she is no mere eye candy or real life Dana Scully, but an accomplished academic, a qualified Medical Doctor and much respected contributor to engaging the public in science.

The book is written atypically for a popular science book, like a travelogue. Roberts wants us to take an interest in the people, the places and the journey she takes before she imparts her knowledge of genetics and human migration. Because of this the prose is colourful and engaging. The only other book I can think of written in this style is Jared Diamond’s Collapse: Why Complex Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. It worked well for that book too.

Note: This book is about the migration of anatomically modern humans and not other hominid species but it does touch very briefly to compare how our anatomy differs from ancestor species and other modern apes. In the section on Europe there is a good summary of the history of research into Neanderthals because the two species would undoubtedly have had contact.

It is broken down into five lengthy chapters based around each episode from the series: 1) Out of Africa 2) Australasia 3) Asia 4) Europe and last but not least, 5) The Americas. This is a slightly different order from the broadcast but the same information is there. Most books released as a companion to a documentary series are normally a superficial recap with glossy production, an abundance of high res images with a high price tag and little of substance. Even the better examples rarely stray beyond recapping what we had already seen. I’m pleased to say that this is not the case here though. If anything, Roberts has taken the opportunity to expand on the themes that time did not permit in a six hour documentary, or perhaps it was felt was inappropriate detail TV.

There are a number of illustrations and a generous dose of colour plates that seem obligatory in popular science books to give welcome relief from the text. It is known from Coast that Roberts is a keen artist and she relishes the opportunity to show off her skills here with sketches littered throughout. It adds the personal touch that is sadly sometimes lacking in popular science books (notable exception is Richard Dawkins who loves to drop in anecdotes about his family and his time as a student or lectures he has delivered). Roberts is undoubtedly a great writer who loves her subject and that goes a long way to inspiring people to learn more.

As somebody who has studied the subject at university, I sometimes felt the need to skip forward through all-too familiar territory. This is not a criticism but readers with an academic interest will probably feel the need to do the same several times, passing over several pages of familiar territory at a time. It also suffers for a lack of chapter by chapter conclusion that we have come to expect from popular science. A few bullet points at the end of each would have really helped to re-cap the main points before moving onto the next.

Personally, I can think of no better introduction for the layman to the theory of the migration of early humanity.

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