cover image Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone

Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone

Brian Switek. Riverhead, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-0-399-18490-1

This wonderful study by paleontologist Switek (My Beloved Brontosaurus) examines the human body’s collection of 206 (or so) bones from a myriad of perspectives. As befits his profession, Switek begins by tracing the origins of various structures in the skeleton back to the distant past, beginning with the protovertebrate Pikaia gracilens. For him, “the very arrangement of our skeletons is a mosaic woven through evolutionary time” that he traces through the development of bone, jaws (with a nod to Peter Benchley), limbs, ears, and more, noting “there is no single moment [in evolutionary history] when our bodies became distinctly human.” In this discussion, he covers those skeletal features which humans have lost, such as eye bones. He also devotes an entire chapter to the identification of Richard III’s skeleton and even describes the modern trade in human remains. Taking care to acknowledge the negative side of science, Switek considers how anthropology has resulted in the disrespectful handling of human remains, such as during the decades-long legal battle over the ownership of the prehistoric skeleton known as Kennewick Man, and how the pseudoscience of phrenology fed racism. Fittingly, Switek concludes by musing on how he might himself be fossilized. This mix of fact and ethical considerations offers much for science enthusiasts to ponder. Agent: Deirdre Mullane, Mullane Literary Assoc. (Mar.)