Books

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy Chapters. Published by Picador on 16 September and St Martin’s Press on 2 November 2021.

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From the Publisher: For billions of years, Earth was an inhospitably alien place – covered with churning seas, slowly crafting its landscape by way of incessant volcanic eruptions, the atmosphere in a constant state of chemical flux. And yet, despite facing literally every conceivable setback that living organisms could encounter, life has been extinguished and picked itself up to evolve again. Life has learned and adapted and continued through the billions of years that followed. It has weathered fire and ice. Slimes begat sponges, who through billions of years of complex evolution and adaptation grew a backbone, braved the unknown of pitiless shores, and sought an existence beyond the sea. From that first foray to the spread of early hominids who later became Homo sapiens, life has persisted, undaunted. A (Very) Short History of Life is an enlightening story of survival, of persistence, illuminating the delicate balance within which life has always existed, and continues to exist today. It is our planet like you’ve never seen it before. Life teems through Henry Gee’s lyrical prose – colossal supercontinents drift, collide, and coalesce, fashioning the face of the planet as we know it today. Creatures are engagingly personified, from ‘gregarious’ bacteria populating the seas to duelling dinosaurs in the Triassic period to magnificent mammals with the future in their (newly evolved) grasp. Those long extinct, almost alien early life forms are resurrected in evocative detail. Life’s evolutionary steps – from the development of a digestive system to the awe of creatures taking to the skies in flight – are conveyed with an alluring, up-close intimacy.

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Editions are projected in Dutch (Uitgeverij Unieboek); German (Hoffmann und Campe); Greek (Kaktos); Italian (Einaudi); Simplified Chinese (CITIC); Japanese (Diamond); Korean (Kachi); Polish (Zysk I -S-ka Wydawnictwo); Portuguese (Bertrand Editoria); Romanian (Trei), Russian (Azbooka-Atticus) and Spanish (Urano).

‘This is now the best book available about the huge changes in our planet and its living creatures, over the billions of years of the Earth’s existence. Continents have merged and broken up; massive volcanic eruptions have repeatedly reset the clock of evolution; temperatures, atmospheric gases, and sea levels have undergone big swings; and new ways of life have evolved. Henry Gee makes this kaleidoscopically changing canvas of life understandable and exciting. Who will enjoy reading this book? Everybody!’
—Jared Diamond

‘Don’t miss this delightful, concise, sweeping masterpiece! Gee brilliantly condenses the entire, improbable, astonishing history of life on earth—all 5 billion years—into a charming, zippy and scientifically accurate yarn. I honestly couldn’t put this book down, and you won’t either.’
—Daniel E. Lieberman

‘A scintillating, fast-paced waltz through four billion years of evolution, from one of our leading science writers. As a senior editor at Nature, Henry Gee has had a front-row seat to the most important fossil discoveries of the last quarter century. His poetic prose animates the history of life, from the first bacteria to trilobites to dinosaurs to us.’
—Steve Brusatte

The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution. Published by the University of Chicago Press. Also published in Italian, from Il Mulino

From the Publisher: The idea of a missing link between humanity and our animal ancestors predates evolution and popular science and actually has religious roots in the deist concept of the Great Chain of Being. Yet, the metaphor has lodged itself in the contemporary imagination, and new fossil discoveries are often hailed in headlines as revealing the elusive transitional step, the moment when we stopped being “animal” and started being “human.” In The Accidental Species, Henry Gee, longtime paleontology editor at Nature, takes aim at this misleading notion, arguing that it reflects a profound misunderstanding of how evolution works and, when applied to the evolution of our own species, supports mistaken ideas about our own place in the universe. Gee presents a robust and stark challenge to our tendency to see ourselves as the acme of creation. Far from being a quirk of religious fundamentalism, human exceptionalism, Gee argues, is an error that also infects scientific thought. Touring the many features of human beings that have recurrently been used to distinguish us from the rest of the animal world, Gee shows that our evolutionary outcome is one possibility among many, one that owes more to chance than to an organized progression to supremacy. He starts with bipedality, which he shows could have arisen entirely by accident, as a by-product of sexual selection, moves on to technology, large brain size, intelligence, language, and, finally, sentience. He reveals each of these attributes to be alive and well throughout the animal world—they are not, indeed, unique to our species. The Accidental Species combines Gee’s firsthand experience on the editorial side of many incredible paleontological findings with healthy skepticism and humor to create a book that aims to overturn popular thinking on human evolution—the key is not what’s missing, but how we’re linked.

‘Henry Gee, paleontology editor at Nature, confronts two commonly held views of evolution and effectively demolishes both, persuasively arguing that evolution doesn’t work the way most people believe it does and that the entire concept of ‘human exceptionalism’ (the idea that humans are fundamentally superior to other animals due to ‘language, technology, or consciousness’) is erroneous. . . . He buttresses these points with an impressive and accessible overview of the pattern of human evolution, showing just how little we actually know and arguing that different evolutionary stories could likely fit the extant data.’ — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

‘If you only read one book on evolution this year, make it this one. You will be dethroned. But you won’t be disappointed.’ — Geoscientist

‘The Accidental Species is an excellent guide to our current knowledge of how we got where we are. . . . Highly recommended.’ — BBC Focus

‘Gee sets out vehemently to dispute our common tendency to see ourselves as the pinnacle of creation, the bold, brilliant branch that is the final growth of the evolutionary tree of life. . . . a thought-provoking and challenging book.’Library Journal

‘With a delightfully irascible sense of humor, Henry Gee reflects on our origin and all the misunderstanding that we impose on it. The Accidental Species is an excellent primer on how—and how not—to think about human evolution.’ — Carl Zimmer

‘The Accidental Species is at once an eminently readable and important book. For almost three decades Henry Gee, senior editor at Nature, has helped bring some of the most important discoveries in paleontology to the scientific community and the public at large. Employing years of experience, sharp wit, and great erudition, Gee reveals how most of our popular conceptions of evolution are wrong. Gee delights in shedding us of our assumptions to reveal how science has the power to inform, enlighten, and ultimately surprise.’ — Neil Shubin

‘Quite simply, the best book ever written about the fossil record and humankind’s place in evolution.’ John Gribbin

‘You may think there was nothing more to say about evolution, but The Accidental Species proves that there is—and wonderful stuff it is.’ — Brian Clegg

‘Gee is a paleontologist, an evolutionary biologist and a senior editor at the journal Nature. He is also a blues musician and a major Tolkien fan — a set of quirky characteristics that may help explain the combination of science and humor that pervades The Accidental Species. It is Gee’s contention that scientists have been completely wrong in seeing humans as the apex of evolution. He denies that we developed big brains, the ability to use tools and all the rest through some kind of progression toward superiority. It was a lot more random, he says: We just kind of turned out this way. He illustrates his premise with detailed analysis and a mocking tone.’ — Washington Post

‘Gee’s big beef in The Accidental Species is with a common and popular narrative in which the evolution of man is a steadily unrolling tale of progress. Think of the classic image of a knuckle-dragging, ape-like creature giving way to a hunched, primitive man who in the following frames becomes taller and bolder until finally he looks like a Premier League football player minus the shorts. The truth, Gee argues . . . is much more complex and surprising.’ — Daily Telegraph

Across The Bridge: Understanding the Origin of the Vertebrates. Published by the University of Chicago Press.

From the Publisher: Our understanding of vertebrate origins and the backbone of human history evolves with each new fossil find and DNA map. Many species have now had their genomes sequenced, and molecular techniques allow genetic inspection of even non-model organisms. But as longtime Nature editor Henry Gee argues in Across the Bridge, despite these giant strides and our deepening understanding of how vertebrates fit into the tree of life, the morphological chasm between vertebrates and invertebrates remains vast and enigmatic. As Gee shows, even as scientific advances have falsified a variety of theories linking these groups, the extant relatives of vertebrates are too few for effective genetic analysis. Moreover, the more we learn about the species that do remain—from sea-squirts to starfish—the clearer it becomes that they are too far evolved along their own courses to be of much use in reconstructing what the latest invertebrate ancestors of vertebrates looked like. Fossils present yet further problems of interpretation. Tracing both the fast-changing science that has helped illuminate the intricacies of vertebrate evolution as well as the limits of that science, Across the Bridge helps us to see how far the field has come in crossing the invertebrate-to-vertebrate divide—and how far we still have to go.

‘Across the Bridge is a deft and well-argued distillation of how advances have shifted the field to the point of dispatching some of the most influential and elegant classical hypotheses, and it is a bold attempt at developing a new synthesis. It thereby deepens understanding of our own evolutionary origins.’– Chris Lowe

‘An excellent addition, complementing Gee’s earlier book Before the Backbone, which provided a historical perspective on ideas surrounding vertebrate origins. Gee addresses an important topic for biologists and zoologists about vertebrates’ place in the ‘grand scheme.’ We are familiar with vertebrates, or think that we are. However, Gee shows beautifully, as a group we are just as strange in many ways as other groups appear to us. Across the Bridge takes on a very esoteric subject and is genuinely witty and charming. The book really is magnificent.’ — Neil J. Gostling

‘…this is a scientific argument that proposes a particular scenario for vertebrate origins. [Gee] presents a data-filled narrative that takes advantage of the substantial advances made during the past two decades in molecular phylogenetics, evolutionary developmental biology, and paleontology. These new data provide surprising insights.’ — Quarterly Review of Biology

Across the Bridge is a wonderfully readable overview of how we vertebrates relate to our closest invertebrate cousins.’ — The Inquisitive Biologist

The Science of Middle-earth. Published by Reanimus. Also available in German.

From the Publisher: This page-turning, fun and accessible book by Henry Gee, a senior editor at Nature, gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at the science behind the magic in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy classics The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Learn how dragons breathe fire, the hidden high-tech of the elves, how orcs reproduce, why seeing-stones work, whether balrogs have wings, and much much more about the magic found throughout Middle Earth. Gee’s writing style is accessible and delightful, and he makes a great case that ‘Tolkien’s own worldview was closer to the true spirit of science than that held by many who propose to promote the public understanding of science.’

‘The most unexpectedly Tolkienian book about Tolkien that I have ever come across.’ — Tom Shippey

‘How did Frodo’s mithril coat ward off the fatal blow of an orc? How was Legolas able to count the number of riders crossing the plains of Rohan from five leagues away? Could Balrogs fly? Gee, a senior editor at Nature (who says he read The Lord of the Rings about once a year between the ages of 10 and 25), elucidates and expands on the scientific aspects of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world in this fascinating book. Many commentators have noted Tolkien’s use of philology and cultural history to create believable languages for his elves and orcs. Now Gee shows how scientific precepts can make the wonders of Middle-earth even richer.’ — Scientific American

Jacob’s Ladder: The History of the Human Genome. Published by Norton and Fourth Estate: Also available in Italian and Spanish

‘Nature science writer Gee begins with a description of how a fertilized human egg develops into a person. As everyone has observed, that person will resemble both parents in various ways, but how are those traits inherited? Aristotle thought that the fetus was made largely out of menstrual blood; others thought that semen carried the entire reproductive package. The details of reproduction weren’t sorted out until the 17th century, when the newly invented microscope revealed the nature of sperm.

‘Even two centuries later, a serious obstacle to the acceptance of Darwin’s theories was scientists’ incomplete understanding of just how heredity worked. Mendel’s work, which sorted out of the fundamentals of genetics, provided the missing link, and Thomas Hunt Morgan’s meticulous study of fruit flies proved that genes were more than just a metaphor. The discovery of DNA’s structure by Watson and Crick made the exact mechanism of inheritance clear once and for all. What happened next is not as well known, and here Gee comes into his own. He clearly and readably explains the “triplet code” by which DNA bases dictate the synthesis of enzymes, the key role of interactions between genes, and the presence of large amounts of “junk DNA” in the genome. He also deals with the evolutionary origins of various features of the human genome, which is within a percentage point of being indistinguishable from that of a mouse. Gee concludes with a look at the questions raised by gene therapy, cloning, and other techniques just coming over the horizon of practical application. Stunning progress, and yet the question of just what in the tangled double helix makes us human remains unanswered. The author hopes we find that answer before we go too far down unknown roads. Well written and illuminating’ — Kirkus Reviews

Deep Time: Cladistics, the Revolution in Evolution. Also published as In Search of Deep Time, and available in Italian.

‘This book will surprise, outrage and delight you – and make you think.’ – Jared Diamond

‘Gee takes the reader inside contemporary palaeontology, from the excitement of a fossil dig with Mexve Leakey to the thousands of carefully stored and catalogued specimens at the Natural History Museum.’ — New Scientist

‘As Gee’s brilliant analysis shows, viewed afresh, evolution proves a more interesting and exciting – if more complex – story than we ever thought’ — Scotsman

’ A classic piece of reportage… Gee deserve high praise for these stimulating additions to the popular science canon.’ — Independent

’Henry Gee’s fascinating book explains how a relatively new method of classifying life revolutionises our picture of the world… In the process of setting out his argument Gee gives us a fascinating introduction to Palaeontological biology.’ — Literary Review

’In Deep Time, Henry Gee eloquently and entertainingly explains exactly why this revolution in evolution is both interesting and important to our understanding of the past.’ — Herald