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Academic & Professional Books  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Animals: Vertebrate Zoology

The Secret Life of Bones Their Origins, Evolution and Fate

Popular Science New
By: Brian Switek(Author)
276 pages, b/w illustrations
NHBS
A nimble narrative, The Secret Life of Bones combines witty exploration of the biology of the human skeleton with more serious considerations of its cultural significance.
The Secret Life of Bones
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  • The Secret Life of Bones ISBN: 9780715653791 Paperback Aug 2019 Usually dispatched within 6 days
    £9.99
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  • The Secret Life of Bones ISBN: 9780399184901 Hardback Mar 2019 Usually dispatched within 1 week
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About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

This book is published in the US in hardback with the title Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone.

Our bones have many stories to tell, if you know how to listen.

Bone is a marvel, an adaptable and resilient building material developed over 500 million years of evolutionary history. It gives our bodies their shapes and the ability to move. It grows and changes with us, an undeniable document of who we are and how we lived. Arguably, no other part of the human anatomy has such rich scientific and cultural significance, both brimming with life and a potent symbol of death.

Brian Switek is a charming and enthusiastic osteological raconteur. In this natural and cultural history of bone, he explains where our skeletons came from, what they do inside us, and what others can learn about us when these wondrous assemblies of mineral and protein are all we've left behind.

Bone is as embedded in our culture as it is in our bodies. Our species has made instruments and jewelry from bone, treated the dead like collectors' items, put our faith in skull bumps as guides to human behavior, and arranged skeletons into macabre tributes to the afterlife. Switek makes a compelling case for getting better acquainted with our skeletons, in all their surprising roles. Bridging the worlds of paleontology, anthropology, medicine, and forensics, Skeleton Keys illuminates the complex life of bones inside our bodies and out.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Witty while handling a range of serious topics
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 17 Apr 2019 Written for Hardback


    From Skeletor to the Danse Macabre, from Army of Darkness to ossuaries and holy relics – despite being largely hidden in life, skeletons are some of the most recognizable structures that nature has produced. Science writer Brian Switek has written a sizzling little book with Skeleton Keys that delves into both the biological and cultural significance of human bones, showing them to be more than just a powerful reminder of death and mortality.

    Switek starts off with a potted evolutionary history of the skeleton, taking the reader all the way back to the Cambrian, some 455 million years ago. The small fossils of Pikaia gracilens are some of the earliest evidence we have of the starting point of skeletal evolution. Looking for all the world like a small worm, it was one of the first creatures to possess a notochord, a cartilage-like structure that is the precursor of the backbone. (For a more technical exposé of that borderline between vertebrates and invertebrates, see my review of Across the Bridge.)

    He then hops, skips, and jumps to other significant milestones; fossils of the fish Entelognathus primordialis show the transition to jawed fish, while Tiktaalik roseae (see Your Inner Fish) shows the transition of vertebrates moving onto land. He considers protomammals, the cynodonts, whose offspring lived through the age of the dinosaurs, and the primordial primates, noting how the changing skeleton acquired more and more traits we now think of as human.

    This part is far from a complete overview of the evolution of skeletons (for that, see e.g. Skeletons), but that was never the intention. It does allow Switek to exercise his funny bone, wondering whether without the evolution of jaws the book and movie would instead be known as Pharyngeal Slit, or comparing the earliest invasion of land by plants to a prehistoric salad bar. At the same time, he is keen to correct misunderstandings about evolution: “It is easy to make categorical divisions between humans and apes when extinction has removed your ancestors”. Similarly, as Tiktaalik shows, any true invasion of land did not coincide with the origin of fingers and feet, with fish evolving into amphibians only millions of years later. This should do away with the misconception of evolution being goal-oriented (beyond, you know, making it to the next generation).

    But we cannot dwell here any longer. Bone as living tissue is fascinating, and Switek introduces the physiology, with osteoblast cells continuously forming new bone while osteoclasts break it down again. Something that goes off kilter when astronauts spend months in space and lose bone mass. That makes hibernating bears all the more of a miracle, how do they not lose bone mass? Switek has the answer. Bone can be moulded in life, as seen by cultures around the world that change the shape of infants’ skulls, while in death it retains a personal history of disease and injury. Archaeologists are becoming increasingly skilful at elucidating these stories (see for example Injury and Trauma in Bioarchaeology and Skeletons in Our Closet).

    At this point Switek transitions seamlessly into the cultural significance of bone, and how especially skulls have become emblems of death. Neanderthals appear to have been much more sophisticated than we have long given them credit for, as evidenced by burials (see amongst others The Smart Neanderthal), while his recounting of the exhumation of Richard III’s skeleton in a Leicester car park in 2012 is a fascinating archaeological detective story.

    A far darker chapter that Switek tackles with panache is the heritage of anthropology. The pseudoscience of phrenology (where measurements of the bumps on a skull supposedly predicted someone’s mental capacities and traits) was long used to justify white man’s superiority. As he mentions, anthropology may not have invented racism, but it certainly fueled it through the 19th and 20th century. Switek is deeply troubled by the resurgence of the idea that race is biologically meaningful. As has been documented at length, there is more variation within populations than between populations, and the overlap between what we thought of as races is enormous (see also Sussman’s strident takedown in The Myth of Race).

    This naturally leads on to the literal skeletons in the closets of many research collections. Lance Grande, a curator at Chicago’s Field Museum, dedicated a chapter to this in his book Curators. The repatriation of old skeletons to for example Native American tribes, for whom the bones of the deceased hold particular spiritual significance, is becoming more commonplace. But not all museums are going along with it, as evidenced by Switek’s story of the skeleton of the Irish Giant Charles Byrne, who is still on display. Another one of those eye-opening tidbits in the book is his peek at the online trade in human bones on platforms such as eBay and Etsy (who have since cracked down on it), and now Instagram.

    Each chapter opens with a drawing from the 1733 book Osteographia or the Anatomy of Bones. These are lovely, and my only bone of contention (sorry) is that there aren’t more illustrations in the book. I would have loved to see some photos included, as Switek describes many wonderful things. For that, readers will have to turn to, for example, the work of palaeoartist John Gurche (see my review of Lost Anatomies) or, two of my personal favourites, Evolution in Action and Skulls. Other slightly less spectacular but still noteworthy books are The Skeleton Revealed and Skeletons.

    Skeleton Keys is a multifaceted exploration of bones and their biological and cultural importance that is very absorbing. Far from a macabre gawk-fest (Skeletons! Eek!), Switek capably handles a range of serious topics, smoothly transitioning between them. The narrative sizzles, whether it is with witty jokes or genuine ire at the disrespect to bones and the questionable ideas they are used to prop up. An incredibly enjoyable book that comes highly recommended.
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Biography

Brian Switek is a collection of 206-some-odd bones and associated soft tissues. He's also the author of the books My Beloved Brontosaurus and Written in Stone, as well as the Scientific American blog Laelaps. His bylines have appeared in National Geographic, Smithsonian, Wired, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, Nature, and other publications, with a focus on the stories old skeletons can tell. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife, Tracey, where he's bossed around by their three cats and tries to maintain the title of Best Dog Dad for his German shepherd Jet.

Popular Science New
By: Brian Switek(Author)
276 pages, b/w illustrations
NHBS
A nimble narrative, The Secret Life of Bones combines witty exploration of the biology of the human skeleton with more serious considerations of its cultural significance.
Media reviews

"Smart, lively, and hugely informative, Skeleton Keys is the ideal guide to the bones around us and in us."
– Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction

"A thoughtful, engaging meditation on the origins of the human skeleton, how it functions (or malfunctions) and how we come to terms with our essential but unsettling osseous framework."
– Jan Zalasiewicz, Nature 566 (7745), February 2019

"Brian Switek writes with remarkable grace about the natural world. In Skeleton Keys, he looks inward, making us keenly aware of the marvels of the bones that give us the scaffolding we need to survive. Every chapter has some surprise, told in elegant tales, that you will repeat to your friends."
– Carl Zimmer, author of She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

"A cheerful popular-science romp through the matter that makes up our skeleton [...] . leaves the beaten path to deliver a fun explanation of the history, function, and cultural meaning of bone."
Kirkus Reviews

"Informative, contemplative, and even lyrical, Switek's work is popular-science writing at its best."
Booklist

"From touring the famed Mutter Museum and London ossuaries, to ferreting out what really happened to Richard III, Skeleton Keys is a lyrical love letter to the 206 or so bones in the human skeleton and the colorful figures who have studied them over the centuries."
– Jennifer Ouellette, author of Me, Myself, and Why and The Calculus Diaries

"Skeleton Keys is an absorbing tour through the world of bones and the bones of the world. Considering in turn dinosaurs, saints, kings, and our own possible future, it is an assured and revelatory book."
– Maryn McKenna, author of Big Chicken and Superbug

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