Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Complete World of Human Evolution by Chris Stringer and Peter Andrews.

Paleoanthropology is a relatively new science in historical terms. It has been only 51 years since Louis and Mary Leakey discovered the biped Homo Habilis, supporting Darwin’s theory of human origins in Africa. By comparison, physics and anatomy have been studied for over 2000 years. So we occupy a privileged position to witness the formation, development and interplay of theories, in a pioneering science. It is valuable to periodically pick-up a recent book on paleoanthropology and discover what new pieces in the puzzle of human evolution have been unearthed.

For this purpose, The Complete World of Human Evolution is a helpful addition to the general public’s knowledge. It is factual, rational and clear; providing a picture of human evolution based strictly on the empirical evidence available. The book was written in 2005, and updated in 2011 to include recent finds, so is fairly contemporary. Conveniently, the back of the revised paperback edition highlights new information between 2005 and 2011:

* New descriptions of [A. ramidus] shed light on the earliest known human ancestor candidates.
*The Newly discovered [A. sediba could prove] australopithecines were ancestral to humans.
*Recent work [confirms that H. floresiensis] was a separate human species.
*New DNA research shows [modern humans outside Africa have traces of Neanderthal genes].
*New discoveries from a Siberian cave suggest another as yet unnamed human species lived alongside Neanderthals and modern humans.

This is a highly user-friendly book. It does not assume that the reader is an expert in the field, so defines new and difficult scientific terms in parentheses. Also, the first section “In Search of Our Ancestors,” provides an excellent introduction to the field’s techniques and history for the beginner, and a helpful refresher for the intermediate. An advanced student would be bored to tears.  For them, I suggest skimming to the next section, but don‘t miss the newer means of analyzing remains.

Since I am a confessionally-oriented american, I would like to reveal a guilty pleasure: I love graphs, timelines and glossy photos of hominin bones. It’s the kind of brain candy that reminds me of the Time/Life books like Early Man in the school libraries where I grew-up. This book will not disappoint the visual learner.

Section Two presents the fossil evidence. Section Three interprets that evidence. Very organized. I must caution the reader that these guys love their bones. You will be getting detailed descriptions of form and function. Uniquely, they spend a great deal of time on species that are not considered ancestors to modern humans, but are either predecessors to various living apes or evolutionary dead ends. It’s not a breeze for the casual reader, but it will provide excellent, impartial evidence.

A note on impartiality: Stringer and Andrews have an advantage over pioneering paleoanthropologists who have made important discoveries in the field. The discoverers have undergone frustrations and hardships associated with archeology: years of painstaking sifting through dirt in unforgiving climates, sometimes victimized by armed robbers, always bargaining with local authorities for digging rights. When such a scientist finds something, they want it to be important. They want all the years and hardship to have been worth it. In addition, they understand that grant money for future research is big business and depends upon important finds. These pioneers are the first to analyze their discoveries. The tendency to ascribe greater importance to the find is understandably strong. But a dispassionate, plodding researcher, with access to the evidence, in a climate-controlled office, is better suited to determine the value of the find for the field of paleoanthropology. A good example is an artifact from Slovenia where archeologists claimed to have discovered a Neanderthal flute. Scientists unconnected with the site later refuted this evidence with information suggesting that “the bone in question had been punctured by bears chewing on it” (Stringer and Andrews, p. 210). The authors have a better sense of overview from various sources. Their colleagues in the field are often overly focused on their own find. Also, both writers have spent time on digs, so have that experience as well. Since Stringer and Andrews are not in the middle of the drama, and do not have a personal stake in the conclusions drawn, their information is more reliable.

This book is a haven for rational minds that accept the scientific method. Given the authors’ country of origin, it is difficult to avoid demographic comparisons. Here in the United States, we are surrounded by religious superstition. According to a 2012 Gallup Poll,
"Forty six percent of Americans believed in creationism, 32 percent believed in theistic evolution and 15 percent believed in evolution without any divine intervention” (Barooah, p. 1). Large, well-funded religious organizations are attempting to interject their beliefs into public school curricula on evolution. In eastern England, where the authors work, “80% disagree with creationism and intelligent design” (Sample, p. 1). In our US environment, books like The Complete World of Human Evolution are a citadel of reason surrounded by a landscape of Dark Ages superstition. Fortunately for the authors, their homeland has a significantly smaller problem in this regard. Enjoy the solace and intellectual fortification that they provide.

Stringer, Chris & Andrews, Peter. The Complete World of Human Evolution. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2011

Barooah, Jahnabi. "46% Americans Believe In Creationism According To Latest Gallup Poll." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 05 June 2012. Web. 23 Feb. 2013.

Sample, Ian. "Four out of Five Britons Repudiate Creationism." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 01 Mar. 2009. Web. 23 Feb. 2013.

For a book on the history of science, see http://greatnonfictionbooks.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-scientists-by-john-gribbin.html