Review of Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth by

Book cover for Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth

This book came on my radar after reading Fossil Men. Whereas that book is a deep dive into one spectacular fossil’s story and the stories of those involved in its finding and analysis, Lone Survivors is more of an overview of human evolution entire. Chris Stringer focuses in particular on the origins of modern humans, i.e., Homo sapiens and our relationship with our cousins the Neanderthals. In so doing, he furnishes us with vital knowledge about human evolution and, perhaps more importantly, how paleoanthropologists discuss these theories of evolution. It’s a little dry and technical at times, but don’t let that dissuade if this is an area of interest.

The title is a good summary. Stringer wants to explore the prehistory that took us from being one of many hominid primate species to being the only members of the genus Homo left standing. He summarizes the various theories paleoanthropologists have explored over the past decades. These tend to fall into two broad schools: multiregionalism and “out of Africa.” The former suggests that modern humans evolved independently throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa from earlier hominid species (e.g., Homo erectus), eventually blending together into the genome we see today. Multiregionalism was the predominant theory for most of the 20th century (unfortunately driven quite often by racist assumptions that Africa represented an evolutionary backwater). The Out of Africa school suggests that modern humans evolved in Africa and then migrated (once or severally) into Europe and Asia to supplant the earlier hominids living there. This school has taken prominence over multiregionalism since the 1970s because of new fossil discoveries, more precise dating techniques, and other evidence. Stringer himself is a proponent of the Recent African Origin theory, which specifically suggests that modern humans arose from a single, relatively more recent exodus from Africa than earlier versions of Out of Africa proposed.

Although Stringer obviously wants to justify his support for Recent African Origin, I’d say the majority of this book actually just summarizes how paleoanthropologists investigate the evolution of humanity. Each chapter discusses different techniques and issues. Stringer describes various ways of dating artifacts and fossils. He spends quite a bit of time talking about genetics, particularly because this is key in trying to determine if modern humans mixed significantly with Neanderthals (bow chicka wow wow). He throws in some possible climatic/environmental explanations for the decline of Neanderthals and subsequent spread of modern humans across the world.

If this all sounds like paleoanthropologists still aren’t sure, I got that impression too. I think it’s the impression Stringer wants us to have. I respect this. Sometimes scientists get so attached to their theories they become too eager to explain the advantages their theory has over the competition to the point where they don’t quite come out and say, “My theory is fact” but it can feel pretty close. Stringer very helpfully shares his personal evolution of thinking on this subject, from his time as a grad student throughout the more recent decades and advancements in technologies.

Indeed, as informative as this book is about evolution, it is most illuminating as a book about the scientific method. Many people who reject evolution decry it as “only a theory.” Which isn’t really accurate—as Stringer explains, evolution is actually many theories, some of which are competing. If an anti-evolutionist claims that scientists don’t have it all figured out, they’re right! But that doesn’t matter. Science isn’t about finding absolute truth; it’s about hypothesizing and then gathering as much evidence as possible to test that hypothesis. Stringer himself encapsulates this by illustrating the vacillation between multiregionalism and Out of Africa as a pendulum that has swung back and forth throughout the 20th century; Recent African Origin is simply a more extreme movement of the pendulum in the Out of Africa direction. In the case of evolution, gathering evidence can be really difficult because the fossil record is so spotty. I empathize a lot with these scientists who work hard to infer as much as possible from the data they do have—even if they don’t always get it right.

I appreciate Stringer’s attention to detail. Some of his language strikes me as outdated even for a book from 2012 (for example use of the label “Orientals”). He delves into ideas of evolutionary psychology and makes statements about what we might infer of the behaviour of modern humans based on ideas of gender roles extrapolated from fossil anatomy. I’m always loath to tar any entire discipline with a single brush, but evolutionary psychology always leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

As I previous said, this book is very detailed and somewhat technical. It perches on the edge of what I would all a popular science book. I don’t think this is an academic book, however—this is meant for laypeople but for laypeople who have serious interest in science. Stringer is very clearly a scientist rather than a science communicator, and it shows.

I’m not sure I’ll pick up any of his other books, but I’m happy to have read this one and learned more about some of the theories (as of 2012) of how modern humans arose!

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