Monday, May 28, 2012

Review - Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins by Ian Tattersall

Short review: The hominid family is enormously complicated and difficult to figure out. It is also endlessly fascinating.

We are the last left
A tangled hominid web
What makes us human?

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: When I was young, one of the book sets my parents owned was the Nature Library series put out by the publishers of Life magazine. One of my favorite volumes in that series was Early Man, for the time a reasonably accurate presentation of the story of human evolution. That understanding is probably best exemplified by the "march of the hominids" contained on pages 41-54 of Early Man showing a fairly linear progression extending from Pliopithecus through the Australopthicenes through Homo Erectus until it reaches modern Homo Sapiens.  Although the depiction shows a couple of side branches, such as Oreopithecus and Panthropus, the overall thrust is of an orderly progression as one hominid evolves, holds sway for a period of time, and is then replaced by a successor species.

But even at that time, the story we had uncovered was not exactly linear, and the plate found on pages 74-75 of Early Man reveals this as a pair of advanced Australopithicines face off against a small band of Panthropus males - an imagined scene in which two hominid species are sharing the Earth and occasionally confronting one another. This image was fascinating to my young mind, and stuck with me ever since I saw it so many years ago. And in Masters of the Planet Ian Tattersall explains that over the last fifty years or so new discoveries have deepened our understanding of human evolution to the point where this scenario seems to have been more common than the present state in which a single hominid species stands alone. Rather than a trunk leading inexorably to us, hominid evolution seems to have been a bush, with many competing branches, in which all the others either died out (or possibly were pruned by our ancestors), leaving Homo Sapiens as the sole survivor.

In Masters of the Planet Tattersall lays out the fossil discoveries that have fueled our current understanding of the history that led to the current dominance of our species, along with the conclusions that have been drawn from those discoveries. The author walks the reader step by step through the history of anthropology, although because the oldest fossils were unearthed most recently, this tour is given in reverse order, with the most recent archaeological finds presented first and working backwards to the discoveries of the first neanderthal fossils in the nineteenth century. Through the journey through the fossil record, Tattersall explains the conclusions scientists have drawn from these artifacts and explores the various speculations engaged in when the available data is inconclusive. Most importantly, Tattersall explains the conclusions that previous evaluations of the data (which, at the time was even more incomplete than the incomplete picture we have now) led to, and how and why the general consensus has changed since that time.

The underlying theme of the book, as one might guess from the subtitle "The Search for Our Human Origins" is to explore exactly what makes us "human", and an attempt to determine at exactly what point in our evolutionary history we stopped being pre-humans or proto-humans, and actually became fully recognizable as human. Building his case on studies of our closest living relatives, the physical structures revealed by the fossils of our ancestors, and some faint traces of evidence about how those ancestors lived, Tattersall sorts through the various signature features that have been advanced in efforts to define what makes a human a human, and attempts to evaluate the points at which those traits may have arisen, and whether those traits are, in fact, the critical defining characteristics of our humanity. By the end of the book, the current picture of human origins is filled out, even though that picture, based as it is upon the fragmentary data that has made it through the eons to us, is blurry. It turns out we are not so much inevitable, as we are simply the strain of hominid that got lucky and outlasted its relatives.

What Masters of the Planet shows brilliantly is that while dimwitted creationists and "intelligent design" advocates are obsessing over irrelevancies like Piltdown man and trying to get their fairy tales into high school curricula, real scientists are ignoring their inanities and keeping busy doing actual work to uncover our true origins. And the picture they have uncovered, although more chaotic and confusing than the previous orderly progression from an ape-like ancestor to us, is also more interesting and most critically, more accurate. While there is nothing in this book that one could not have found out elsewhere, this book compiles all the material into one place so it can be seen as a whole, and the interconnections can be made readily apparent. Anyone interested in human origins will find this book both engaging and illuminating.

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