Amanda Rees and Charlotte Sleigh
Reaktion Books, £12.95

I am not sure which genre one might assign Human. It appears in an extensive series of monographs on a huge range of animals, and having not read the others I find it hard to put it into context. One thing is clear, there is not a great deal of biology in it.

Admittedly the introduction and earlier chapters do cover the evolution of the species, highlighting the many controversies in this field and acceptance of the theory. What differentiates Homo sapiens from other great apes is discussed, in terms both of obviously biological factors such as anatomy and physiology, but much more in terms of culture. This primarily is what the authors see as uniquely human. Each chapter is headed with a single word that defines the authors’ viewpoint at the time. For example, `Hominin’, `Machine’, or `Alien’.

As I have indicated, the cultural perspective dominates. To reinforce that, the text is beautifully supported by art works that mostly relate to the subject matter. For that alone the book is highly enjoyable. The aim seems to have been to define what it is to be human. That is not so difficult if one is constrained purely to biological data, but much harder if behaviour and culture are included, especially when values in different societies vary so widely.

Some of the text is a little fanciful for my taste, e.g. to mention telepathy in a biological context. Indeed, the concluding chapter seems to lose focus, and the illustrations seemed a little gratuitous. But that’s the scientist in me talking.

Les Rose CBiol FRSB