The Human Inheritance: Genes, Language, and Evolution.

Bryan Sykes (ed.). Oxford University Press, Oxford. 1999. Pp. 195. Price £19.99, hardback. ISBN 0 19 850274 5.

During the spring of 1997, Wolfson College, Oxford, held a series of eight lectures on human origins, evolution and diversity, which are now published in this compact book. Bryan Sykes, the organiser of these lectures, did not set out with the intention of publishing them but I am glad that he changed his mind. The contributors, Colin Renfrew, Chris Stringer, Don Ringe, Gabriel Dover, Bryan Sykes, Svante Pääbo, Ryk Ward and Walter Bodmer have produced a set of exciting and thought-provoking essays. Although I was already familiar with some of the more genetic material it was the essays, which included linguistics, palaeontology and human migrations — topics that I rarely have the time to read about in any depth — that really grabbed my attention. Also, it is always interesting to find that other disciplines are driven with the same types of strong disagreements and controversies about approaches, methods and, even, the data that afflict one’s own field.

Whilst it might be invidious to single out individual essays as they are universally excellent, it was those where my knowledge of the field was minimal that gave me the most enjoyment, for example, Svante Pääbo’s ‘warts and all’ description of the problems and frustrations of working on ancient DNA. If I was not aware before I read these essays that there is probably a limit to how far origins of languages can be traced because of the way languages are transmitted and evolve, I certainly am now. Similarly, despite the considerable hype around studies of ancient DNA in the press and media, Pääbo’s statement that ‘..there probably is a time barrier, which I would put between 100,000 and 1,000,000 years, that we will not be able to break with ancient DNA’ was refreshingly frank.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book — I must have read it, in its entirety, at least three times. It makes excellent bedtime and travel reading. All I can really do is recommend it most highly — read and enjoy.