[Review] The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being: Evolution and the Making of Us

alice roberts

Title: The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being: Evolution and the Making of Us
Author: Alice Roberts
Publisher: Quercus Books / Heron
Date of Publication: 4 September 2014
Number of Pages: 320

Rating: 3.5 stars

Disclaimer: Copy provided free by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Summary: The presenter of BBC’s The Incredible Human Journey gives us a new and highly accessible look at our own bodies, allowing us to understand how we develop as an embryo, from a single egg into a complex body, and how our embryos contain echoes of our evolutionary past.

Bringing together the latest scientific discoveries, Professor Alice Roberts illustrates that evolution has made something which is far from perfect. Our bodies are a quirky mix of new and old, with strokes of genius alongside glitches and imperfections which are all inherited from distant ancestors. Our development and evolutionary past explains why, as embryos, we have what look like gills, and as adults we suffer from back pain.alice roberts boffin without a beard

This is a tale of discovery, not only exploring why and how we have developed as we have, but also looking at the history of our anatomical understanding. It combines the remarkable skills and qualifications Alice Roberts has as a doctor, anatomist, osteoarchaeologist and writer. Above all, she has a rare ability to make science accessible, relevant and interesting to mainstream audiences and readers.

Review: This is the best creation story, because it is true. It’s also packed with quite bizarre revelations. In your DNA, there are traces of a common ancestor you shared with a fruit fly. At one point in your development, it looked like your embryo was about to grow gills. And the tools our ancestors began to make and use, millions of years ago, ended up changing their anatomy – helping to make your hands what they are today. This scientific story, pieced together from many different sources of evidence, is more extraordinary, more bizarre, more beautiful, than any creation myth we could have dreamt up (6%).

I have great respect for Prof. Alice Roberts. I remember watching Time Team and thinking she seemed fun and smart and I remember deciding that I wanted to have a career like hers. Life hasn’t quite turned out like that but I guess it’s never to late. The programs Roberts has made for the BBC are engaging and intelligent and it is really fantastic that she puts herself through the physical experiments rather than a third person or a computer generated model. I think this makes her results and her comments within this book believable and accurate. Roberts has built up trust through her previous work which assisted my engagement.


“Turkana Boy” by Claire Houck from New York City, USA – Turkana Boy. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

What did I discover from reading this book? I discovered that quite a lot of what the book contains was familiar to me and I discovered that I should have changed universities and continued studying biological anthropology instead of “making do” in the cultural tract. This is one of the major “what if” questions of my life. That’s another story. Let’s focus back on our shared, incredible journey.

Of all the new elements I learnt from this book, the most fascinating, to me, is the evolutionary path that tracks back to fish. While some will argue and hate that our throats are formed from a prior incarnation as gills, I think it is brilliant that our ears are also a part of this system. I find it a strangely compelling feeling to have this fish lineage in my history and my body. This knowledge also makes me reflect on the longing I have, as do many others, to go to the beach. To be by the water – to be in the water – to hear the sound of the waves. It all connects and is so easily integrated into what we know.

Image Mine

Plaster cast of footprints found in Norfolk. Image Mine

When a baby is about a year old, the backwards curve in the lumbar spine starts to develop (48%).  This is something that most of us will know without knowing and is visible in parents and carers with small babies. The example from my life is my cousin not understanding why my niece couldn’t sit up by herself and his surprise when she fell forward – her face on the floor.


Model of a Neanderthal, taken by me, at the Natural History Museum exhibition Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, London.

I find it difficult to review this book in any detached, critical and reflective way because of all of the content is scientifically sound at our current level of knowledge. A reader does not, however, need to have any prior knowledge of the topic as there is a perfect balance of hard science fact and commentary based and controlled by the facts. Roberts has an engaging and conversational style that works well at drawing all the elements together.

I have given this book 3.5 stars purely because I haven’t read anything from this field for quite some time and I have nothing contemporary to base my reactions on.

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