Friday, April 15, 2022

How to Build a Human

 How to Build a Human: In Seven Evolutionary Steps 
by Pamela S. Turner; illus. by John Gurche 
176 pages; ages 10-13
‎Charlesbridge, 2022

This book tells the story of a winding evolutionary path of just one of the millions of species that have evolved on this planet over the last 3.5 billion years or so. It is the story if us, Homo sapiens, and boy, what a long, strange trip it’s been. Because, as author Pamela Turner points out, understanding our evolutionary history by looking at the fossil record “is like trying to figure out a complex movie plot based on just a few screenshots.”

Pamela distills the history of the human species into seven easy pieces. Okay, not so easy, because our human ancestors were tested by the environment every step of the way. And those traits that aided survival were passed on to ensuing generations.

The first step: Standing Up. Is walking on two legs more advantageous than walking on four? Apparently for our evolutionary pathway – at least so far. Next step: We Smash Rocks – aka: creating and using tools. Fact is, humans aren’t the only animal to use tools. Chimps use twigs to extract termites from logs, and crows use tools as well. But we are the only animal to use one tool (rock) to craft another tool (sharp edged flake for cutting). Other steps include: migrating, using fire, developing language, and telling stories. 

What I like about this book: Pamela makes it clear that there are often more than one species of hominids living at the same time, representing multiple ways to solve the problem of living in their landscape. Aside from her straightforward explanation of natural selection, I enjoyed the occasional footnote. I also like her explanation of how natural selection works on whatever is there. “A trait doesn’t have to be perfect or optimal to be passed on,” she writes, noting that if evolution had a motto it would be: Good Enough. In every chapter she emphasizes that, for new traits in a population, the environment tests and the environment selects. 

Plus there is back matter! Pamela goes into race (a cultural construct), genetic drift, fossils, climate shifts, as well as timelines and resources for curious readers.

I enjoyed this book SO much that I had to ask Pamela a couple of questions. She was gracious enough to answer them…

me: So how did you come to the structure - and these seven steps in particular?

Pamela: The structure came about because I had always liked reading about human evolution but I felt like the lede got buried. The conventional approach is to spend a lot of time discussing who found what fossil when and how the discovery was received by the scientific community. In other words, a lot of emphasis on the history of paleoanthropology. And typically as a reader a LOT of confusing species names are thrown at you, especially since hominin species names have changed over time, or fossils have been shifted from one species to another as scientific understanding has improved. 

I decided I would focus on the seven most important changes from point A (the last common ancestor with chimps and bonobos) to point B (anatomically and cognitively modern humans). Seven of course has a certain cache. I came up with six of the steps right away--all were fairly obvious. The one that was least obvious was "We Take a Hike" (Step 4), which I wrestled with until I realized that expansion out of Africa was intimately tied to our ability to acquire ecological knowledge and pass it on to others. In other words, teaching and learning.

me:  Do you worry about the political (and anti-intellectual) environment surrounding books in schools and libraries? 

Pamela: The anti-intellectual environment surrounding books and libraries actually galvanizes me. A few years ago a reviewer of The Dolphins Of Shark Bay wrote something like: “It's a terrific book, except for all the evolution stuff.” Which inspired me to focus even more on “the evolution stuff” in Crow Smarts and, of course, How To Build A Human

I know Human is going to be challenged by Biblical literalists. My personal opinion (I was raised Southern Baptist) is that there are many notable passages in which Biblical authors describe the world in lovely, poetic language meant to invoke emotion, and that it’s unfair to expect the Bible to function simultaneously as poetry and biology textbook. We don’t, for example, draw principles of physics from the Bible. Job 26:7 says “[God] hangeth the earth upon nothing” but I've never heard anyone say that Job 26:7 negates Newtonian physics.

Thank you so much, Pamela! You can find out more about her and the books she’s written at her website. Also check out my reviews of her books, Crow Smarts and Samurai Rising (fast-paced biography)

Thanks for dropping by today. On Monday we'll be hanging out at Marvelous Middle Grade Monday with other  bloggers. It's over at Greg Pattridge's blog, Always in the Middle, so hop over to see what other people are reading. Review copy provided by the publisher.


  1. WOW! Really looking forward to reading this, Pamela! Thanks for sharing, Sue!

  2. What a wonderful approach. I think (hope) kids will wear this book out reading it. Thanks for telling me about it.

  3. Glad you enjoyed this one so much. Breaking it down into seven steps sounds like a great way to make it interesting for kids.

  4. This sounds like a really interesting book and I am looking forward to reading it, especially since a copy made its way to me last week. Thanks for this great review and interview.

  5. The book sounds fascinating. I especially like how the author explains the evolutionary process so that it is more friendly to readers. And kids need to know both sides so they can decide for themselves what they believe. Great interview!!!

  6. It was nice to hear from the author in your interview. Such an important step for all kids to understand all viewpoints as to how we got here and allowing to formulate their own opinion. I'll be looking for this one. Thanks for featuring it on MMGM.

  7. Kudos to Pamela Turner for another terrific job well done❣ I am using this insightful new book with my graduate students in Life Science now. We are also using her work in The Frog Scientist. Can't wait to see what Pamela's next book will be about!!