First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human, by Jeremy DeSilva, is being released by Harper Collins on April 6, and it is destined to be one of the finest popular science books of the year.
Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus both have given it starred reviews. The latter said in part, “A renowned paleontologist takes readers behind the scenes of one of the most groundbreaking investigations into the origins of humankind.”
Personally, I think it’s brilliant–a beautifully written book that reports on the latest findings about human origins, introduces us to the personalities (including the author) responsible for them, and transports us to the places, from Vermont to South Africa, so we can observe science being done.
This excerpt from the book’s introduction provides the gist:
The year 2016 set a record for kills in the annual hunt to cull the swelling population of black bears roaming free in rural and suburban New Jersey. Of the 636 taken, 635 were dispatched with only a few howls of protest from animal lovers.[ii] But when news broke that one particular bear was dead, there was outrage.
The killing was called “an assassination.” The hunter thought to be responsible received death threats. Some advocated that he, too, should be hunted and killed. Others called for his castration. Why such fury over one dead bear?
Because he walked on two legs. Although he fed on all fours, an injury prevented him from putting weight on his front limbs, so to move, he reared up and walked upright.
We are drawn to animals when they behave like us. We post videos of goats yelling like humans and Siberian huskies howling “I love you.” Perhaps more than any other behavior, though, we are awestruck by bouts of bipedalism. Plenty of animals rise on two legs to scan the horizon or strike an intimidating pose, but humans are the only mammals that walk on two legs all the time.
When another animal does it, we are mesmerized. When humans do it, it is ordinary. It is, you might say, pedestrian. We are the only striding bipedal mammals on Earth—and for good reason.
In the following pages, these reasons will become clear. It is a remarkable journey, which I’ve organized along these lines.
Part I investigates what the fossil record tells us about the origin of upright walking in the human lineage. Part II explains how it was a prerequisite for changes that define our species, from our large brains to the way we parent our children—and how those changes allowed us to expand from our ancestral African homeland to populate the Earth. Part III explores how the anatomical changes required for efficient upright walking affect the life of humans today, from our first steps as babies to the aches and pains we experience as we age. The conclusion examines how our species managed to survive and thrive despite the many downsides of walking on two, rather than four, legs.
Come, take a walk with me.
Did I mention that Jeremy is my son? OK, but 50 years as a writer, editor, and book reviewer has made me very clear-eyed about writing. This is a great book.