Pamela S. Turner

Pamela S. Turner
Pamela S. Turner

Pamela has writ­ten a wide vari­ety of non­fic­tion and fic­tion, includ­ing Crow Smarts, Samu­rai Ris­ing, The Dol­phins of Shark Bay, The Frog Sci­en­tist and Hachiko.

We’re talk­ing with her about her most recent book, How to Build a Human: In Sev­en Evo­lu­tion­ary Steps (Charles­bridge 2022; art by John Gurche).

As a starred review in The Horn Book says, “‘Evo­lu­tion is a jour­ney, not a des­ti­na­tion.’ The paths and branch­es of human evo­lu­tion, from our pri­mate ances­tors to Homo sapi­ens, are thor­ough­ly covered…Turner is a con­sum­mate sto­ry­teller: her steady pace through mil­lions of years of the human evo­lu­tion­ary line is buoyed by an amused stance, joke-filled foot­notes, well-timed shifts into sec­ond per­son, and mod­ern-day analo­gies attuned to a mid­dle-grade audi­ence. At the same time, she is metic­u­lous in empha­siz­ing the main under­ly­ing con­cepts of evo­lu­tion­ary sci­ence: her terms are pre­cise, her rep­re­sen­ta­tions of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge clear­ly dif­fer­en­ti­ate between hypoth­e­sis and estab­lished fact, and she con­fronts mis­con­cep­tions head on (see espe­cial­ly a pow­er­ful state­ment about the unsci­en­tif­ic con­struct of race: ‘race is a cul­tur­al con­struct, not a bio­log­i­cal reality’).”

Pam, did your goal in writ­ing this book change from the research-gath­er­ing phase to the sub­mit­ting-it-to-your-edi­tor stage?

Sur­pris­ing­ly, not that much. I had sev­er­al goals from the onset. The first was to make human evo­lu­tion under­stand­able. I have always been inter­est­ed in the top­ic but found it very con­fus­ing because of all the dif­fer­ent species names, and the way fos­sils get re-cat­e­go­rized and re-named as the sci­ence pro­gress­es. So I decid­ed to frame the book around major steps in human evo­lu­tion, both phys­i­cal and cog­ni­tive, and picked sev­en. All of the steps were obvi­ous choic­es, except per­haps my deci­sion to sep­a­rate lan­guage and sto­ry­telling. Through­out the text I inten­tion­al­ly used as few species names as pos­si­ble, and I inten­tion­al­ly omit­ted the his­to­ry of who found which fos­sil when. While inter­est­ing, I felt it dis­tract­ed from the sto­ry arc.

How did you orga­nize your research?

How to Build a Human in Seven Evolutionary StepsOnce I had my basic out­line — the sev­en steps — I start­ed read­ing the work of experts in the field. When I had some piece of infor­ma­tion I want­ed to include, I would make a sum­ma­ry and note the ref­er­ence. Basi­cal­ly I would drop the tid­bit into one of my sev­en buck­ets. I sought out and cit­ed orig­i­nal sci­en­tif­ic arti­cles when­ev­er pos­si­ble, rather than rely­ing on what some­body wrote in The New York Times or wher­ev­er. I sought out books by experts in their field. If that expert cit­ed some­thing with­in their area of exper­tise (chimp behav­ior, for exam­ple) I accept­ed it as sol­id, but if they wrote some­thing about an area out­side their exper­tise (fos­sil dat­ing tech­niques, for exam­ple) I would check their ref­er­ence and/or seek out a more author­i­ta­tive ref­er­ence. In a few cas­es with con­flict­ing data I asked the opin­ion of the pale­oan­thro­pol­o­gists who were my expert reviewers.

What about the writ­ing process?

After my research — I think I used about 150 sources in the bib­li­og­ra­phy — I had 100 pages of sin­gle-spaced notes orga­nized into my sev­en steps. The actu­al writ­ing was a blast because it was a total riff. I had the back­ground in my head, I knew I had to weave in cer­tain themes that would pop up again, but oth­er­wise I felt very free cre­ative­ly. Which is why Human has sil­ly foot­notes and quirky digres­sions, like the one about the Japan­ese writ­ing system.

What was the hard­est part to write?

Hands down, the hard­est was “A Note on Race.” I didn’t feel that dis­cus­sion belonged in the main text because I end­ed my saga at around 40,000 years ago when no such con­cept exist­ed, and in any case, 40,000 years ago all humans were what we would now call peo­ple of col­or. But it was real­ly dif­fi­cult to com­pose “A Note on Race” because it need­ed to be con­cise (nobody’s going to read a 20-page author’s note) while mak­ing a nuanced argu­ment: that race and racism are real, and have real bio­log­i­cal impacts, even though race isn’t bio­log­i­cal. Yikes. I was lucky to have Habi­ba Chirchir’s help. She’s the Kenyan pale­oan­thro­pol­o­gist who wrote the fore­word and she offered very insight­ful com­ments on my first draft. (Which was prob­a­bly my fif­teenth draft…it took a long time to get it right.)

Do you think the sub­ject (human evo­lu­tion) is going to be controversial?

I won’t be sur­prised if Human gets banned some­where. When Human was dis­cussed on School Library Journal’s Heavy Medal blog, some­one left a com­ment stat­ing they didn’t like Human, argu­ing that it was “biased” and “one-sided” because it didn’t include a cre­ation­ist account. I’m afraid there are quite a few peo­ple with this view. (Such folks would nev­er, of course, con­tem­plate the reverse: Sun­day school teach­ers being oblig­ed to dis­cuss evo­lu­tion through nat­ur­al selec­tion!) So I think that despite the need for mid­dle school­ers to under­stand and engage with this top­ic, How to Build a Human will be offi­cial­ly banned here and there, and “soft banned” more wide­ly. By this I mean that some librar­i­ans and teach­ers will not pur­chase it, either because they object to the book or they antic­i­pate com­mu­ni­ty chal­lenges. Or it might be pur­chased but then qui­et­ly removed from the shelves. Or “lost” and not replaced.

What impact do you hope Human will have on readers?

In recent years there’s been a laud­able empha­sis on human diver­si­ty. We should also cel­e­brate human uni­ver­sals. I think How to Build a Human con­nects us to what we all have in com­mon as Homo sapi­ens. And besides improv­ing sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­cy, belief in evo­lu­tion has been linked to less prej­u­dice towards “out-groups” and a reduc­tion in racism. I can’t think of a bet­ter rea­son to under­stand human evo­lu­tion than that!


As she always does with each book she pub­lish­es, Pamela S. Turn­er fea­tures fab­u­lous resources on her web­site. Be sure to click on “More on Human Evo­lu­tion” in the side­bar of her How to Build a Human web­site page for a full page of resources.

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Jen Bryant
10 months ago

This is a gem of a book! It’s on my “best of” shelf and deserves to be in every library. A tru­ly remark­able com­bi­na­tion of deep, care­ful research, great writ­ing and a mar­velous wit.

Heidi Hammond
Heidi Hammond
10 months ago

Thank you for your excel­lent book that explained evo­lu­tion in a way that was both fas­ci­nat­ing and easy (eas­i­er) to under­stand. I loved all the resources you pro­vid­ed, and dur­ing and after read­ing your book, I spent lots of time on the Smith­son­ian web­site. I also enjoyed the links you pro­vid­ed in this inter­view. I real­ly appre­ci­ate all the research, time, and effort put into your won­der­ful book.