Sergio Almécija in Conversation with Robyn Massey About Humans

In a career that has spanned more than twenty years, Dr. Sergio Almécija has dug up fossils in Europe, visited museum collections all over the world, and, more recently, studied living apes in their natural environments in Africa and Asia. What was he looking for? He was trying to solve the mystery surrounding the origins of the human lineage.

Almécija is the editor of Humans: Perspectives on Our Evolution from World Experts. He is also a senior research scientist at the American Museum of Natural History, where he designs interdisciplinary research projects seeking to connect the dots of information presented by the fossil and archeological records, as well as the anatomy, genetics, and behavior of primates currently available.

Over the years, Almécija has discussed and collaborated with many top specialists in the broad, ever-expanding field of human evolution. Many of these conversations were purely technical, leaving important—deeper, more personal—questions unasked. That is, until now. In Humans, Almécija compiles the unfiltered answers to those questions from 100+ world-leading experts, many of whom with decades-worth of experience working in the field.

Robyn Massey: So how did you become interested in the topic?

Dr. Sergio Almécija: Accidentally! Growing up near Barcelona in Spain, I didn’t enjoy high school, but somehow I felt I had to go to college to study biology. I think it’s because I always loved watching documentaries about nature, wild animals, and far-distant incredible places. However, I was about to dropout from college in my second year. I wasn’t doing well there. I attended the lectures, and they bored me to death. It was nothing that I couldn’t learn better from a book. But then a chance encounter with a paleontological site made me feel like I was part of a mysterious sci-fi adventure thriller. It involved figuring out details about the life and death of humans who lived more than a million years ago.

I even met some of the people featured in the National Geographic magazines that I used to devour in the public library. In the field, they were as dirty and smelly as me. They were real, normal people. I started volunteering for any paleontological or archeological dig that would take me. It was my true hobby—my obsession.

Years and grant applications went by, and a one-year postdoctoral fellowship to work at the American Museum of Natural History evolved, after various years and jobs, into being full-time research position. I still don’t know how I got here. But I do know that humans are storytellers, and the story of human origins is one of the most fascinating. I wanted to hear the different versions of this story from others. That was one of the motivations for compiling Humans.

Massey: What is the story behind the title?

Dr. Almécija: The part before the subtitle, “Perspectives on Our Evolution…,” was itself the product of evolution. Originally, it was going to be something like “Our Past, Present, and Future…” The initial reason for this was because most books about human evolution deal only with the past. Just a rare few extend some links into the present. I wanted to highlight that this book also incorporates important questions about our now and our future. I hope the wonderful illustration on the book cover captures this intention well! I also wanted to know if there was possible, in the mind of other experts, to actually learn from the past in any practical way for our present or to inform our predictions for the future of humankind.

The responses in the book are all over. Naturally, everyone has an opinion and a different motivation to do the work they do. In other words, we all see the world through a different lens that colors how we see the same thing. Everyone has a different story. Or call it “theory,” if you will.

This book is about human evolution in the broadest meaning of the word. But it too is about the humans behind the big names, the science, and the perspectives in this book. This book is a behind-the-scenes take on human evolution.

Massey: Does the book reveal any interesting yet less known “facts” about human evolution that we still can learn more about?

Dr. Almécija: Not one, but many. The answers compiled in Humans reveal that there is much that remains open or, at the very least, unsettled. For example, no one—well, almost no one—doubts that there is enough DNA evidence to indicate that the closest living primate relatives to Homo sapiens are the two chimpanzee species, followed by gorillas and orangutans. There is also enough molecular and fossil evidence to show that we diverged from living apes around 7 million years ago.

However, the specifics of how our lineage originated, such as the environment and other causes, are still heavily discussed. In addition, the nature of the last common ancestor (LCA) of humans and chimpanzees is currently a source of heated debate inside and outside the literature. This is one of the many realities in the field that might not be well-known to those outside it or even to new students. I’m not only saying this based on my own experiences. It is evident from reading the varied answers to the same questions from the many participants in the book.

Massey: How did you come up with the list of experts featured in the book?

Dr. Almécija: I feel that the list came up with me. In my life, I’ve been lucky enough to meet and interact with many of my personal heroes in the field of human evolution. Humans that I admired and whose works I spent hours reading in my college’s library stacks. Some later became senior colleagues of mine with whom I have had the privilege to work with. Some are retired now. A few are not among us anymore…

Out of sheer selfish curiosity, I reached out to my senior colleagues first with the list of questions and a vague idea for what would become this book. I must admit, it was dreadful and scary. I feared rejection the most. But when the first answers came my way, I was astonished and delighted. I immediately knew this book would happen. It had to happen.

I started contacting colleagues with requests to participate in this book in early 2019, pre-pandemic. Some gave their answers. Others gave me their wish list of people they would like to ask these questions, which became the “bonus question” in the book. The list grew from there organically.

Massey: How did you develop the list of questions in the book?

Dr. Almécija: I was in Borneo at the time, studying orangutans. I had a broken little toe, which made walking through the swampy forest difficult. I had a vague idea about this book in my head. So I started jotting down the questions. What could I ask that sounded easy or fun on the surface but could put all the meat out to the table? Humans are creative machines. Strange things happen when you have time to kill.

Massey: Did you encounter any surprises in the answers from the experts featured in the book?

Dr. Almécija: Many. For example, we tend to imagine that well-situated, influential people started from an advantageous position. The answers to the question about “Beginnings” clearly show that many of these thinkers had it rougher than most of us. For others, the reason why they end up doing the great work they do was a simple chance encounter in a museum or with the right elementary school teacher. We should highlight the essential role of those enthusiastic educators.

Another interesting surprise, at least for me, was how many participants answered the question about science vs. spirituality. I had assumed, based on my own fears, that most participants would ignore this question. Yet I found that many were eager to discuss it and, from both sides, I received thoughtful answers. I also found the different takes from experts inside and outside the United States to be particularly interesting.

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