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Weekend reads: Perfidia, Fatherland and The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being

James Ellroy on form and doing what he does best ... again

The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being: Evolution and the Making of Us

The most incredible and unlikely thing about this book is the lack of a BBC series to accompany it. Alice Roberts has been the face of just about every biology programme on the TV network in the last few years and has covered human evolution before in Dorling Kindersley picture book Evolution: The Human Story and the migration of the human species out of Africa in The Incredible Human Journey.

It seems the great irony of evolution is its proponent’s evangelical zeal in preaching it. A century and a half after Charles Darwin proposed his ground-breaking theory, most modern educated humans have grown comfortable with the fact that:

“Man is angel on his way from slime” as Robert Calvert so succinctly put it. It seems it is only scientists and creationists who are unable to get over it.

The Incredible Unlikeliness Of Being goes into greater detail than Alice Roberts’ previous television tie-ins allowed and contains absolution from Richard Dawkins, the Pope of evolution himself, who commends her “engagingly personal style” and that is the main strength of this work.

Alice Roberts is an excellent communicator, she speaks to the individual, never to the gallery and unlike Dawkins never gets involved in the quagmire of theology or eugenics. She also skilfully avoids the trap of presenting her subject as an all encompassing doctrine, for instance saying: “It’s as though the mind is determined to remain mysterious, experiential, unknowable.”

The least appealing thing about this book is that Roberts has chosen to illustrate the work with her own line drawings, and while she may be a professor of biological science, it seems she probably only just scraped a GCSE in art.

The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being book cover

In the age of electron microscopy and MRI scans, it is a surprising choice. Her sketches are basic to say the least and compared to her illustrious predecessors such as Robert Hooke, she gives the impression of graphic evolution in reverse.

That said, her prose is excellent and her passion for her work makes this book as interesting as any I have read about this most pedestrian of subjects. Alice Roberts uses just about every literary device to engage the reader.

Indeed, there are a couple of rock ’n’ roll subheadings: Mind the Bollocks and Born To Run. Alice is evidently a fan of Terry Pratchett, who is quoted on a few occasions. And there is even a nudge-nudge moment when she alludes to Antonie van Leeuwehoek’s methods of gathering his sperm samples: “I’ll leave it to your imagination”.

She lampoons Realdo Colombo as the “self-professed discoverer of the clitoris”, though I felt she missed a trick when describing the forked genitalia of marsupials. Then again, spit-roasted Skippy would be just one double entendre too many.

Roberts balances her detached professional attitude and the openness of a modern lass perfectly. Her own experiences of motherhood and scientific exploration are introduced in a sparing, but relevant manner.

There are a couple of amusing anecdotes of other BBC presenters such as Michael Mosely who, it seems, has indulged in more self abuse in the name of science than Keith Richards has for the sake of hedonism and the Beeb’s very own Braveheart, Neil Oliver, who claims to have eaten lampreys as an extra in a Akira Kurosawa movie. Yet when she compared the chemical processes of evolution to The Great British Bake Off, I felt it was just a careless name-drop, one metaphor beyond the pale.

The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being is full of fascinating connections such as that of the human larynx and fish gills having sprung from the same primordial cells. There are moments, particularly in the chapter on the spine, where the text is almost overwhelmed with Greek and Latin terminology, but never for long.

Admittedly, after the chapter "Gonads, Genitalia and Gestation", I found my attention wandering somewhat, as if in a state of post coital tristesse, but I guess it’s just that the topic of limbs isn’t quite as fascinating as genitalia.

I would recommend this book to anyone with a passing interest in evolution, anatomy or human biology. It is informative, witty and profound, and presents the current interpretations of evolution in a very clear and readable manner. Unlike Richard Dawkins, whose science is undermined by a narrow and doctrinaire approach, Alice Roberts manages to humorously evoke the mystery of creation, without sacrificing any of the scientific facts. MD ®

Alice Roberts The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being: Evolution and the Making of Us book coverAuthor Alice Roberts
Title The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being:
Evolution and the Making of Us
Publisher Heron Books
Price £19.99 (Hardback)
More info Publication web site

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