Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan
Man, that Carl Sagan wrote a lot of books, didn’t he? This is a great book, but I’m starting to get to that overload point where I’ve read the same popular-science description of the same topics (like DNA) over and over and OVER and FREAKING OVER AGAIN… whew. Sorry. It’s just that once you hit about 20 or 30 popular science books of the Sagan / Hawking / Gleick / Kaku / etc. variety, you’re going to hear about the same few topics again and again, and it’s tempting to skip over whole chapters on, say, evolution since you just DONT WANT TO HEAR IT AGAIN. Sorry. This effect is actually one of the motivations behind this website (timeblimp.com, in case you’re not paying attention), to bring to light the obscure and out-there topics that you don’t hear about every day, in books by professors with so much tenure that little particles of tenure can be found in their sweat while playing handball at the faculty club.
I don’t mean to pick on Sagan & Druyan in particular — they are actually probably my favorite scientific authors, and the miniseries “Cosmos” is probably the reason I went into science. This is an excellent book, with Sagan’s usual poetic and dramatic writing style — no one in science has quite the talent for turning a phrase or finding just the right word as he did. All you other Nobel laureates thinking about writing a career-summing book for the masses, learn from the master. I can easily forgive the repetitive coverage of the same topics that I’m experiencing from book to book, because Sagan is never guilty of the one bad habit I see in most other popular science books written by Nobel laureates summing up their work. Namely, repeating your main idea or thesis, over and over again, within the same book. Sagan never does this, and it seems like everyone else ALWAYS does this. For an example of a flagrant offender, see Stephen Wolfram’s “A New Kind of Science”, which devotes 30% of the words in the book to repeating the main thesis (that Wolfram discovered a new kind of science).
That being said, I don’t think I’ve read a more detailed book about the mating habits of apes, and I’ve never before read a Carl Sagan book that drops the f-bomb (page XXX, for you thrill-seekers). The book is an attempt to explain exactly where humans come from historically and scientifically, starting all the way at the beginning at the formation of the Earth and Solar System, and culminating in a long discussion of the societies you find in apes and other primates in the wild. They take the opportunity for lots of social-commentary points using analogies from apes (like the fact that certain primates will act violent when overcrowded, suggesting something about humans living in overcrowded cities), but really I was reading it more for the strange mating habits of primates.