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Eve: How the Female Body Drove 200 Million Years of Human Evolution

(Bohannon’s) strength is also in the sheer compilation of the useful and the puzzling drawn from paleontology, medicine, evolutionary biology, history and anthropology. — Rebecca Davis

Cat Bohannon
Knopf, 624 pages | Published October 3, 2023

At the heart of Cat Bohannon’s ambitious, engrossing history of humanity, Eve: How the Female Body Drove 200 Million Years of Human Evolution, is a startling revelation: humans are particularly bad at “reproducing ourselves — demonstrably worse at it than many other mammals.” Worse than most other primates, worse than our closest ape relatives, and certainly worse than our ancestors who walked on four legs. When hominids began walking upright, difficulties with procreation followed, including very large baby heads and very small women’s pelvises. It has been a rough go.

But unlike other similarly challenged species, such as the white rhino or giant panda, in the millions of years since hominids walked, our technology, physiology and social constructs have evolved to mitigate our reproductive deficiencies. Homo sapiens have become a dominant species on Earth, at 8 billion and counting. How was this possible? Bohannon loosely traces our biological and cultural adaptations deftly through a set of foremothers called “Eves,” whose bodies first demonstrated lactation, placenta-aided gestation, use of tools, and language, among other developments. Most chapters in this book are one-part explanation of our modern bodies, one-part evolutionary history lesson and one-part commentary on how the traditional scientific narratives, dominated by male perspectives, may have some tantalizing alternatives.

The temptation in these broad-review prehistorical books, (in the vein of Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, or Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, among others), is to read them as erstwhile horoscopes or to use them as cannon fodder in our culture wars. Though Bohannon is not shy about making strong, well-defended proposals, she is dedicated to synthesizing vast and diverse academic arguments to help general readers update our foggy prehistorical narratives (think 2001: A Space Odyssey.) One of her most interesting notions is that sexism and gynecology are two near-institutions that wax and wane in opposition throughout history. But her strength is also in the sheer compilation of the useful and the puzzling drawn from paleontology, medicine, evolutionary biology, history and anthropology. Who knew that humans are one of only a few species that experience menopause? Or that people had to leave Africa twice to become a global species? Or that men lose their ability to hear higher-pitched sounds more quickly than women do?

I can’t recommend this sprawling book highly enough, both through print, which allows for the absurdly copious notetaking a book like this requires, and in audiobook, in which Bohannon ably reads her captivating prose, especially her anecdotes and stories, with a great deal of energy. Though it contains only a few passing references to religion, Eve would make for a fascinating group study. It seems worth discussing in communities of faith for its grand context setting, especially in religious traditions such as ours, which focus on the corporeal. Some of her casual parlance may also give some readers pause; this is a text rendered in no small part in the language we commonly use to talk about ourselves, and our sexuality, in modern times.

That seems as it should be. Bohannon, who earned a Ph.D. from Columbia in the evolution of narration and cognition, creates in Eve a unique conversation in which general readers of all genders and persuasions can find new perspective on how we have become who we are.

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