A Review: Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes

Written by: C. Titus Brown

Primary Source: Living in an Ivory Basement

I just finished reading Svante Paabo’s autobiography, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes. The book is perfect — if you’re a biologist of any kind, you’ll understand most of it without any trouble, and even physicists can probably get a lot out of the story (heh).

The book describes Svante Paabo’s journey towards sequencing the Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes, and the attendant scientific and popular science implications. It’s a fantastic portrayal of how science really works, from the perspective of a driven, charismatic, and successful scientist.

Beyond the scientific story, which I had not known much about at all, there were two particularly interesting parts of the book.

First, I was surprised at the candor and simultaneous shallowness with which Dr. Paabo discussed his various relationships and bisexuality. Throughout the book there is occasional mention of men, women, marriage, and relationships, and while I don’t get much of a sense of how impactful all of this was on him personally, it is striking how little it seems to have impacted his scientific life. There was one particular bit in the middle that I found very understated in reporting, where he and a couple all move into the same apartment building, and then depart with different spouses. I guess I was surprised at the choice to report the personal relationships while avoiding any depth whatsoever. (Craig Venter still takes the cake with a single paragraph in A Life Decoded where he starts the paragraph with a divorce and ends with an engagement. It’s a long paragraph, but still.)

Second, it was somewhat dispiriting to watch Dr. Paabo’s transition from an enthusiastic young scientist concerned primarily with getting accurate scientific knowledge out there to one who was very focused not only on scientific correctness but on publicity. There’s a great section at the beginning where he talks about publishing the first mtDNA sequence from Neanderthals, and he chooses Cell because it allowed longer articles and a better representation of the science; he also spends a lot of time making sure his mtDNA sequence can be reproducibly generated by another lab. By the end, however, he’s publishing in Science and Nature, and agonizing over whether or not he’ll be first with the publication. (The latter approach seem much more harmful to good scientific practice to me; both the secrecy & competitiveness and the desire to push out papers in Science and Nature are problematic.)

I don’t know how much self-reflection went into the narrative, but it would be interesting to know why his approach towards publication changed so much during his career. Is it because science changed as a whole towards requiring the splashy high impact papers? Or is it because he grew in stature and funding requirements to the point where he needed the splashy high impact publications to justify the funding? Or (as he says towards the end) is it because of the perceived career needs of his junior colleagues? Or all three? Or more?

Anyway, a great read. Highly recommended for the sci-curious.


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C. Titus Brown
C. Titus Brown is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. He earned his PhD ('06) in developmental molecular biology from the California Institute of Technology. Brown is director of the laboratory for Genomics, Evolution, and Development (GED) at Michigan State University. He is a member of the Python Software Foundation and an active contributor to the open source software community. His research interests include computational biology, bioinformatics, open source software development, and software engineering.