Public Anthropology by Biological Anthropologists

Skin A Natural History“Public anthropology” is often presented as primarily an effort of cultural anthropology. For example, the University of California Press Series in Public Anthropology focuses on ethnographies. Yet a broader public anthropology is inherent in its own description:

The California Series in Public Anthropology draws anthropologists to address major issues of our time in ways that readers beyond the discipline, find valuable. Many anthropologists write on narrow subjects in self-contained styles that only coteries of colleagues appreciate. The Series strives, instead, to analyze important public concerns in ways that help non-academic audiences to understand and address them.

Rob Borofsky echoes this broad conception when he writes, “Public anthropology seeks to address broad critical concerns in ways that others beyond the discipline are able to understand what anthropologists can offer to the re-framing and easing–if not necessarily always resolving–of present-day dilemmas.”

Biological anthropologists do public anthropology. They write for broad audiences and address social problems and public concerns. Their books move from the very body we live in to the importance of human variation, the origins of violence to assumptions about human nature and reproduction. Biological anthropologists have provided advice and information on caring for your child, looked at how our present-day environment can shape human health and behavior, and shown how to engage in primate conservation.

Here are those books, the ones that show public anthropology in action. The title links to the Amazon book listing. These books are recent, accessible, competitively priced, and compelling – all useful for increasing their public reach.

Public Anthropology Books by Biological Anthropologists

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (2000), Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species. Ballantine Books.
Hrdy “unblinkingly examines and illuminates such difficult subjects as control of reproductive rights, infanticide, ‘mother love,’ and maternal ambition with its ever-contested companions: child care and the limits of maternal responsibility.”
98% Chimp
Nina Jablonski (2008), Skin: A Natural History. University of California Press.
“This amply illustrated rhapsody to the body’s largest and most visible organ showcases skin’s versatility, importance in human biology and uniqueness… Penn State’s anthropology chair, Jablonski nimbly interprets scientific data for a lay audience, and her geeky love for her discipline is often infectious.”

Jonathan Marks (2005), What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and their Genes. University of California Press.
“So why should one venture through the 307 remaining pages of this book, if the main message is obvious from the start? I can see two good reasons. First of all, because it is fun… The second reason is that the subject of this book is extraordinarily important. Many scientists and physicians deal daily, in one way or another, with human variation and its consequences. However, only seldom do we have the time to reflect on the assumptions underlying many concepts, even apparently simple ones, in this area.”

James J. McKenna (2007), Sleeping with Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Cosleeping. Platypus Media.
“Cosleeping is one of the most delicious experiences in parenting, and Dr. McKenna’s carefully researched and thoughtful advice separates the myths from the marvelous reality.”

Dale Peterson & Richard Wrangham (1997), Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Mariner Books.
“Contradicting the common belief that chimpanzees in the wild are gentle creatures… they suggest that chimpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human warfare.”

Meredith Small (1999). Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent. Anchor.
“How we raise our children differs greatly from society to society, with many cultures responding differently to such questions as how a parent should respond to a crying child, how often a baby should be nursed, and at what age a child should learn to sleep alone… [This book] will be especially meaningful to those swept up in the wild adventure of parenting.”

E.O. Smith (2002). When Culture and Biology Collide: Why We Are Stressed, Depressed and Self-Obsessed. Rutgers University Press.
“This book will be completely accessible to laypersons, and yet equally thought provoking for scientists.”

Karen Strier (1999), Faces in the Forest: The Endangered Muriqui Monkeys of Brazil. Harvard University Press.
This book “outlines the fight against extinction of the wooly spider monkey. Muriquies remain one of the most endangered primates, but the detailed profile drawn up by the author and her fellow researchers has provided crucial information in their fight for survival. In all areas Strier has carried out impressively thorough and precise research, outlined here in a very readable form, accessible to specialist and laymen alike.”

Other Recent Popular Books by Biological Anthropologists

Why limit ourselves to just eight? After all biological anthropologists have written many popular books. Here is a wider listing, ones that might not hew to a strict definition of “major issues” and “critical concerns” that comes with public anthropology. But these are certainly books that interest a broad public.

I’ve covered five areas: human biology, human history, language, primates, and human evolution. These are books by anthropologists, not journalists or other scientists (though they’ve written a lot of relevant and enjoyable books too). Many thanks to Carol Worthman, Agustin Fuentes, Thom McDade, and Jim McKenna for providing suggestions. Feel free to add your own favorites in the comments!

Human Biology

S. Boyd Eaton, Marjorie Shostak, and Melvin Konner (1989), The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet and Exercise and a Design for Living. HarperCollins.

Peter Ellison (2003). On Fertile Ground: A Natural History of Reproduction. Harvard University Press.

Helen Fisher (2004). Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. Holt.

Helen Fisher (1994), Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray. Ballantine.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (2009). Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Belknap Press.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (1999), The Woman That Never Evolved. Harvard University Press.

Melvin Konner (2003). The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit, 2nd edition. Holt Paperbacks

Bobbi Low (2001), Why Sex Matters: A Darwinian Look at Human Behavior. Princeton University Press.

Meredith Small (2002). Kids: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Raise Young Children. Anchor.

Meredith Small (1996). What’s Love Got To Do With It? Anchor

Human History

Matt Cartmill (1996), A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature Through History. Harvard University Press.

Gregory Cochran & Henry Harpending (2009), The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. Basic Books.

Clark Spencer Larsen (2002), Skeletons in Our Closet: Revealing Our Past through Bioarchaeology. Princeton University Press.

John Relethford (2004), Reflections Of Our Past: How Human History Is Revealed In Our Genes. Westview Press.


Derek Bickerton (2009), Adam’s Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans. Hill and Wang.

Terrence Deacon (1998), The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain. W.W. Norton.

Dean Falk (2009), Finding Our Tongues: Mothers, Infants, and the Origins of Language. Basic Books.

Steven Mithen (2007), The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body. Harvard University Press.


Shirley Strum (1990), Almost Human: A Journey into the World of Baboons. W.W. Norton.

Craig Stanford (2002), Significant Others: The Ape-Human Continuum and the Quest for Human Nature. Basic Books.

Human Evolution

Richard G.Bribiescas (2006), Men: Evolutionary and Life History. Harvard University Press.

Dean Falk (2004), Braindance, New Discoveries about Human Origins and Brain Evolution, revised and expanded edition. University Press of Florida.

Donna Hart & Robert Sussman (2005), Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution. Basic Books.

Richard Klein (2002), The Dawn of Human Culture. Wiley.

Peter Richerson & Robert Boyd (2006), Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. University of Chicago Press.

G. J. Sawyer, Viktor Deak, Esteban Sarmiento & Richard Milner (2007), The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans. Yale University Press.

Chris Stringer & Peter Andrews (2005), The Complete World of Human Evolution. Thames & Hudson.

Ian Tattersall (2008), The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know About Human Evolution, 2nd edition. Oxford University Press.

Richard Wrangham (2009). Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Basic Books.

Bernard Wood (2006). Human Evolution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.

5 thoughts on “Public Anthropology by Biological Anthropologists

  1. Can I add to your list anything by Robert Sapolsky? His research into stress and neuroendocrinology is fascinating, and he is a very engaging writer. My favorite is A Primate’s Memoir, but Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and Monkeyluv probably fit better into the “Public Anthropology” genre.

  2. Zinjanthropus, thanks for mentioning Sapolsky. He’s definitely a great writer and overlaps a lot with biological anthropology. In fact, I am developing another list that will cover other scientists and journalists who’ve written some good books in the public bio anthro domain. And Sapolsky would be right there at the top of the list!

    I probably won’t get to that list soon, so people, please feel free to mention books you like. But for me, this particular post was about showing bio anthro in action.

  3. Thank you for your time to put this information out.

    I would like to add Elliot Liebow to the list, as I am currently reading (and enjoying – even though it’s already made me cry twice and I’m only 1/4 of the way into it) his 1993 book “Tell Them Who I Am”. Wow. He was told in 1984 that he had cancer so he retired at 58 years of age from an anthopological government job of many years and started spending time as a volunteer helper for the homeless.

    He also wrote “Talley’s Corner”, which is next on my list.

  4. Chris Kuzawa also suggested these books:

    Erik Trinkaus (1994), The Neandertals: Of Skeletons, Scientists and Scandal
    Alan Walkman and Pat Shipman (1997), The Wisdom of the Bones: In Search of Human Origins
    Richard Potts (1997), Humanity’s Descent: The Consequences of Ecological Instability

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