Peter T. Ellison - On Fertile Ground

The evolutionary insights provided by this book are not to be missed. They make all those questions of why does life work like this make sense. If you are left wanting even more (especially for the pre-birth portion of human development) then also check out Making Babies: The Science of Pregnancy.

Although prior background isn't required, Ellison can be fairly technical at times, which doesn't exactly make this a popular work. Some subjects he beats to death. One of those being the 46 page chapter on natural contraception achieved through low metabolic energy/breastfeeding. Connoisseurs of the subject will be interested, but I wouldn't have minded a 3 - 5 page summary instead. Sans the historical background of the debate it can be sound-bited into:

Nature's contraceptive (amenorrhea after childbirth while breastfeeding) helps to prevent a woman from being saddled with the untenable task of metabolizing for three by scaling its effectiveness to the mother's available metabolic energy. (p. 126)
Overall, it's a worthwhile account for those interested in evolutionary biology and/or reproduction who don't mind more detail than provided in more popular treatments (which tend to completely omit the evolutionary significance).

from the publisher:
Reproduction is among the most basic of human biological functions, both for our distant ancestors and for ourselves, whether we live on the plains of Africa or in North American suburbs. Our reproductive biology unites us as a species, but it has also been an important engine of our evolution. In the way our bodies function today we can see both the imprint of our formative past and implications for our future. It is the infinitely subtle and endlessly dramatic story of human reproduction and its evolutionary context that Peter T. Ellison tells in On Fertile Ground.

Ranging from the latest achievements of modern fertility clinics to the lives of subsistence farmers in the rain forests of Africa, this book offers both a remarkably broad and a minutely detailed exploration of human reproduction. Ellison, a leading pioneer in the field, combines the perspectives of anthropology, stressing the range and variation of human experience; ecology, sensitive to the two-way interactions between humans and their environments; and evolutionary biology, emphasizing a functional understanding of human reproductive biology and its role in our evolutionary history.

Whether contrasting female athletes missing their periods and male athletes using anabolic steroids with Polish farm women and hunter-gatherers in Paraguay, or exploring the intricate choreography of an implanting embryo or of a nursing mother and her child, On Fertile Ground advances a rich and deeply satisfying explanation of the mechanisms by which we reproduce and the evolutionary forces behind their design.

Peter T. Ellison is Harvard College Professor, Professor of Anthropology, and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University.

On Fertile Ground is a fine overview of the role of hormones in human reproduction, and of the way hormones and behavior interact. Authoritative and lively, it is the best place to start. --Melvin Konner, Emory University

A splendid synthesis by one of the pioneers in the study of the evolution of the human reproductive system. Ellison provides a readable, marvelously informative account of the physiology of reproduction as it relates to women's lives. --Sara Blaffer Hrdy, author of Mother Nature

"Because of the many subfields it covers, not to mention the contradictory claims made by its practitioners, human reproduction has been a difficult topic for non-specialists to master. Peter Ellison has now turned a fearsome set of data-rich puzzles into a single elegant story. On Fertile Ground shows readers where the intellectual problems lie, what's wrong with past solutions, and why his views are right. On Fertile Ground is a riveting tale of adaptation and a major contribution to mammalian evolutionary ecology. It shows science at its best. --Richard Wrangham, author of Demonic Males