Kindred – Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Subtitled ‘Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art’ this book gives a comprehensive overview of not just what we know about Neanderthals but also how we got to this level of knowledge where such a book covering those topics and many more could be written. A superb piece of research that has deservedly been one of the science highlights of the last year, it only came out in the summer of last year and has yet to appear in paperback but my copy is already the seventh impression of the hardback which suggests excellent sales. The real surprise, to me at least, is just how much our knowledge of Neanderthals has advanced in the last two decades due to much better archaeological techniques which more accurately map the various strata of a dig and the positioning of thousands of objects but also from the DNA analysis that is now possible.

Although aimed at the interested amateur Sykes makes some assumptions regarding the knowledge of the reader in the terminology she uses. For example ‘analysing the calculus’ is not explained for well over a hundred pages from when it is first used. When it is defined it turns out to mean studying the teeth, or more specifically the residues built up on the teeth of the fossil remains rather than the obviously wrong, but entertaining until proved otherwise, that Neanderthals had somehow grasped differential mathematics. The complexity of various rock knapping techniques and how this helps define groups of Neanderthals who must therefore have interacted with each other is very well explained although I would have liked more diagrams to illustrate this to make the differences clearer. The last time I read a book on this subject was definitely over two decades ago so a vast amount of information in this book was new to me and as it is 380 pages long there is a huge quantity to take in.

It is very well written, and whilst the necessary vocabulary did sometimes have me checking on Google to make sure I understood this was a relatively rare occurrence as for the most part terms are explained as they are needed, with the obvious exception of calculus, however a small glossary at the back along with the detailed index would have been useful. Sykes can’t resist the occasional pun either such as ‘harvest the data’ when referring to gathering evidence of plant eating and this lightens the tone of what could have been in a lesser writers hands quite a dry study making it very readable and engaging.

The opening chapter deals with the slow growth of knowledge about Neanderthals from when they were first discovered just over 160 years ago and then through the book we are introduced to the 99 sites that remains have been discovered at right across not only Europe, which was their heartland but the ones in the near and far east which I had never heard about, there is a useful map on the front end papers which shows this spread. As you would expect from such an all encompassing subtitle Sykes attempts to not just document the artefacts found but also place them into context of the living, breathing people that used them. Just how would such a chipped rock be used? Were they making personal adornments? What can the spread of hearths (areas where a fire was lit rather than necessarily anything physically built) within a cave complex tell us about the size of the population using the shelter or the timescales that a place was used? How did they co-exist not just with each other within clan groups but with other clans and even Homo Sapiens when they appeared on the scene moving into Europe from their African homelands hundreds of thousands of years later? All of this and more is covered, it is definitely a book that will repay rereading in a few months to fully take in the sheer mass of information.

According to her introduction Sykes completed the book in June 2020 and hints at several, as yet unpublished, studies that she has clearly had access to meaning that this truly is as up to date as it was possible to be. But with the indicated speed of advances, especially in DNA analysis, either a revised and updated version or even a second volume must be a possibility in a few years time. Even the fact that she completed the book during lock down for the coronavirus pandemic becomes significant, we still don’t know why Neanderthals disappeared, was there perhaps a contagion brought by Homo Sapiens that further weakened the existing population, struggling as it was with climatic changes 40 thousand years ago as the continent swung from glaciation to warmer temperatures and back again. Of course they never truly went away, DNA analysis proves this, modern humans, at least outside those of African descent, have a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA and knowing this the story of this ‘lost’ people gains even more relevance today.

The one criticism that I do have is the unnecessary fanciful opening sections to each chapter in either prose or verse, lasting between a half and a full page of text, they add nothing to the rest of the work but fortunately can be easily skipped as they are in italic. Clearly influenced by Jean Auel and her very good Earth’s Children series of novels set in the time of the Neanderthals, I started off reading these chapter preambles but after chapter five just left them out.

The Double Helix – James D Watson

For this years August reading marathon I have decided to tackle four of the most significant science books that I have on my shelves. Unlike previous years where I have needed to read multiple books in a week this year I only have one at a time but because of their very nature these books are not something you can quickly get through and rush onto the next one, also two of them are over 500 pages in length. Three are published by the Folio Society and the other by Heritage Press in America who often produced books of a similar quality until they ceased publishing.

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I’m starting with what is arguably the most significant scientific discovery of the twentieth century, the structure of DNA and how it could pass on genetic material. It is written by one of the three Nobel Prize winners for the discovery and provides a fascinating account of the race to be the first to crack how this mechanism worked and indeed what it was that did it. Now I freely admit that biology is easily my weakest science having dropped the subject at sixteen so was a little wary of this book and whether it was just going to go over my head but I need not have worried as Watson’s style pulls the reader along so that even in the technical parts I could keep up.

I hadn’t realised how quickly the science behind genetics changed in the early 1950’s or how competitive the search for the solution as to how genetic material was passed on became. Watson provides a good overview of the state of the science after the war where the general consensus was that the information had to be in proteins because they were more complex than DNA appeared to be so that had to be where something so important was encoded. Watson himself became interested in bacteriophages (phages for short) which are viruses which can have within them either DNA or the simpler RNA molecules surrounded by proteins and in 1951 started work at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge where he first met Francis Crick and the story begins. The original foreword which is included in this volume is by their departmental head Sir Lawrence Bragg who had himself won the Nobel Prize in 1915 for his work on X-Ray diffraction which was ultimately the way used to confirm the helical nature of DNA. Bragg says in his foreword regarding Watson’s style and tone in the book

He writes with Pepys like frankness. Those who figure in the book must read it in a very forgiving spirit. One must remember that his book is not a history, but an autobiographical contribution to the history which will someday be written. As the author himself says, the book is a record of impressions rather than historical facts.

Watson does indeed explain that he compiled the book from letters and diaries, which explains the large number of personal details such as dinners and his accommodation problems being included which all provide a more rounded narrative than the straight science. As for the Pepys like frankness, Bragg himself is subject to a few scathing comments especially when he specifically requires Crick and Watson to stop working on DNA and get on with what they were supposed to be doing. But his main target as a person obstructing their progress is Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant chemist and exponent of X-Ray crystalline photography and who took the images which ultimately confirmed Watson and Crick’s model. Franklin did not work with either Watson or Crick she was based in Kings College, London working with Maurice Wilkins or more accurately working against him according to this book as the two did not get on either personally or professionally so Watson’s impressions of her are strongly coloured by Wilkins’ opinions. Wilkins would ultimately share the Nobel prize with Crick and Watson in 1962, sadly Franklin had died of cancer in 1958 and posthumous prizes have only been awarded twice and have been specifically prohibited since 1974. Watson however has said that he thought she should have been included in 1962.

The tension mounts as Watson describes the various groups working on the genetic solution which ultimately comes down to three teams racing for the prize. Crick and Watson in Cambridge, Wilkins and Franklin in London and Linus Pauling in America. Ironically Pauling would also be a Nobel laureate in 1962 but he won the Peace prize for this campaign against nuclear testing. Wilkins and Franklin were the closest technically but due to their failure to work together were starting to trail but what really prompted Watson to get on with model building was Pauling who produced a paper which was close but which had a serious error in the chemistry and so produced the wrong result but Crick and Watson knew that once he realised his mistake it might be weeks rather than months before he fixed it and found the correct answer.

There have now been many more historical and less anecdotal accounts of the search for the structure of DNA, as predicted by Bragg in his introduction including another book by James Watson, which I also have, entitled DNA and written in 2003 to accompany a British TV series on DNA marking the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery. Watson was very young, only twenty four, when he and Crick made their breakthrough and that possibly also affected the style of this book. At the time of writing he is still alive, the only person involved who is, and at ninety two lives in his native America.

A better view of the cover design by Alice Stevenson based on a design by Gavin Morris.

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