Anthropologist and geneticist Spencer Wells, "explorer in residence" at the National Geographic Society and author of Pandora’s Seed, a new book about how the invention of agriculture profoundly reshaped human nature, discusses six of his all-time favorite reads:
The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond (HarperCollins, $15). Diamond’s first book for a popular audience explored deep issues in human evolutionary history, as well as many of the themes he later expanded upon in Guns, Germs, and Steel. A fascinating read.
The Harmless People by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (Vintage, $16). A marvelously sympathetic account of the author’s encounters with the Bushmen of the Kalahari in the 1950s, this book portrays their fascinating, yet sadly vanishing, way of life. Thomas’ book is a wide-eyed glimpse of an Africa few will ever see.
The History and Geography of Human Genes by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi, and Alberto Piazza (Princeton, $65). Luca was my mentor when I was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford, and he’s one of the most learned men I’ve ever known. Although this book has a fair amount of technical detail, the majority of its chapters present a grand, sweeping narrative of the past 200,000 years of human history.
The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin (Penguin, $16). Chatwin’s meditation on humanity, told through excerpts from his notebooks and through the lens of a visit he made to Australia. His musings on our innate desire to wander and explore combine to produce a wonderful essay on human nature.
The Histories by Herodotus (Penguin, $11). Written in the fifth century B.C. by the man known as “the father of history.” Fascinating sketches, some very much exaggerated, of the world known to Herodotus and his contemporaries. It takes you back to a more naïve age, when most of our planet was still strange and unexplored.
The Double Helix by James Watson (Touchstone, $16). A classic of popular science writing, and still the best account of the personalities and intrigue behind one of the great scientific discoveries of the 20th century. Watson was urged not to publish it by his scientific collaborators. Luckily for us, he ignored them.