A Letter to Layla

Ramona Koval

A Letter to Layla
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A Letter to Layla

Ramona Koval

How might the origins of our species inform the way we think about our planet? At a point of unparalleled crisis, can human ingenuity save us from ourselves? Much-loved writer and broadcaster Ramona Koval travels the globe in a quest to answer these difficult questions and more.

She speaks with an eminent paleo-archaeologist in the Republic of Georgia, meets the next generation of robots in Berlin, attends a transhumanist conference in California, and explores a cave in southern France before talking with the world’s leading authority on cave art. And throughout, she returns to her quick-witted, ever-engaging youngest granddaughter, Layla, whose development in infancy spurs Koval to find out what makes us human, what separates us from the other apes.

Filled with insightful and unexpected discussions with scientists whose knowledge of the past could hold the key to our future, A Letter to Layla will surprise and delight in equal measure.


Ramona Koval’s A Letter to Layla examines what it means to be human. In an affectionate account of Homo sapiens’ origins, she explores what has given us our current dominance of the planet. All life may have come from the same gene pool, but an accident of evolution – our exceptional brain – has set us apart.

Having examined the origins of Homo sapiens, Koval then goes on to examine our future. The age-old quest for immortality and search for answers to the afterlife take her from caves in Spain to AI conferences in Los Angeles. She goes down a science-fiction rabbit hole into the world of cryogenics and transhumanism, and into recently discovered cave systems to engage with existential questions from ice-age humans.

Koval travelled extensively and spoke with a huge array of sources while researching A Letter to Layla, visiting archaeological sites and computer labs, and meeting with primates and their handlers. The debates are vigorous and contradictory and the personalities powerful and often eccentric. Koval’s erudition carries the reader across many disciplines and A Letter to Layla reminds us of our potential as a species.

Interwoven with this account are Koval’s observations of her granddaughter Layla’s development. Through Layla, Koval demonstrates the thought processes and social skills that gave us the edge over the rest of the great apes and earlier hominids. Koval and Layla’s exchanges give an immediacy and connection to our evolutionary past, and also embed a personal memoir of Koval within the story of homo sapiens. Koval’s warmth towards her immediate family extends to our species as a whole.

Susan Stevenson works as a bookseller at Readings Malvern.

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