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Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived Hardcover – January 29, 2013

ISBN-13: 978-0802717566 ISBN-10: 080271756X Edition: 0th

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company (January 29, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080271756X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802717566
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (139 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #192,677 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Q&A with Chip Walter, author of Last Ape Standing

Chip Walter

Photo by Richard Kelly Photography

1.: Your previous book, Thumbs, Toes and Tears, helped explain human nature by looking at traits that are unique to humans and then exploring how they came to be. Since that book was written, it’s become increasingly clear that many other species of humans co-existed and competed in the past, and that now all of them are gone, but one. Us. Why have we survived when so many others failed?

Chip Walter: It’s fascinating how that happened because on the surface it really doesn’t make any evolutionary sense. Our direct line of ancestors faced a dilemma more than a million years ago that could have ended them right there and then. Their brains were growing larger AND they had taken to walking upright at the same time. Both adaptations were helpful except for one problem: walking upright narrows the birth canal and that makes it difficult to bring larger brained babies to full term. The solution was to bring the babies into the world prematurely, and extend their childhood longer AFTER birth. You wouldn’t think that bringing increasingly helpless preemies into existence and then lengthening the time it takes for them to have the next generation of children wouldn’t seem to be a very effective survival strategy. Might be smarter to shorten childhood and have more babies faster. If you were a betting ape in those days, you wouldn’t have given our direct ancestors much of chance. But the creativity and inventiveness our uniquely long childhoods make possible are the reasons, ultimately; that we survived when so many others were shown the evolutionary door.

2.: You say that at one point the human race had been whittled down to near extinction, and only a few thousand of us remained. Why? How did we bounce back?

CW: Around 75,000 years ago the genetic evidence indicates we were, at best, down to a few thousand childbearing Homo sapiens. This would mean there were fewer of us than there are wild chimpanzees on Earth right now. The planet was in the grip of a very nasty ice age that had dried out most of Africa. Pockets of Homo sapiens existed in South Africa and maybe a few other locations. Around this time there was also an immense volcanic eruption in Indonesia and the Homo sapiens in Africa were in the path of the ash cloud. (Other human species were not down wind or in the direct path.) Ironically, around the same time you begin to see the first glimmers of human creativity and symbolic thinking which is necessary for things like art, sculpture and language. Those extra skills apparently helped us bounce back, generate newer, better survival strategies and share innovative ideas.

3.: You have a chapter in the book entitled “The Moral Primate." You point out that most other animals aren’t, don’t worry about being fair, but we struggle with good and evil all the time. Where does our sense of morality come from?

CW: One of the outcomes of a longer childhood for us was that our ancestors found themselves faced with two BIG problems. They had already been forced out of the jungle into the savannas of Africa. Savannas are far more dangerous places to live and survive—more predators, less available food, greater distances to cover. On top of this, they now had to deal with raising these “early-born” infants and children who required their care for longer and longer periods of time. So how do you deal with that without getting wiped out? You bond, you rely upon one another more than ever to help keep the whole troop alive. BUT it’s not quite that simple because at the same time you also have to compete with the very same people you rely on for help. You contend with them for mates, for food, for power and status within the troop. This is one of the great paradoxes of the human condition. We all must both compete and cooperate with one another. This raised the first “moral” questions. Do you put yourself first, or do you put others in the group first? Do you kill, bully or hurt another to get more food, a mate, more power in the short term, and if so, what are the long term consequences? You could be killed or bullied yourself, or tossed from the group, the equivalent of suicide on the savanna. Longer term, you might need that person’s help some day. Maybe thinking a little less selfishly would be a good idea? So we evolved a basic moral code, one in which we want to be treated by others the way we treat them—the golden rule, which is universal and expressed in virtually every human culture on earth.

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From Booklist

Images of hirsute, slack-jawed Neanderthals are so ingrained in popular culture that nearly anyone can readily identify this cave dweller as a long-extinct predecessor of modern man. Yet according to science writer Walter, most people are shocked to learn that 25 other species of humans besides Neanderthals and contemporary Homo sapiens evolved on our planet over the last seven million years. In this captivating and informative field trip through man’s paleontological past, Walter stitches together the piecemeal story of our unlucky ancestors and showcases the adaptive characteristics that allowed our kind to—so far—make the evolutionary cut. Some of the more intriguing vanished species profiled here are the diminutive, hobbit-like Homo floresiensis of Indonesia and the recently discovered Red Deer Cave people of China. Among the many survival advantages Walter highlights in comparing today’s humans with these earlier species are their prolific creativity and significantly longer childhoods. An exceptionally well-written overview of man’s evolutionary history as well as an accessible guide to the underappreciated field of paleoanthropology. --Carl Hays

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Customer Reviews

If you are interested in this subject matter, you have to read this book.
Nancy W. Flood
Last Ape Standing is a good summarization of evolution of humans to the present, with a long discussion on how humans attained language and thinking.
Mary McClintock
Kudos Chip Walter, I hope this book was as much a joy for you to write as it was for me to read.
Scott Glancy

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

142 of 164 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on July 14, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I don't normally write reviews (in fact this is my first one), but the errors in this book irritated me. It's an interesting book, but the errors were significant enough to make me wonder about the veracity of the rest of it. For example, the author goes through the human delivery process in order to illustrate one of his precepts. However, he mistakenly says that babies are born facing up, because if they were born facing down their necks would snap. In fact, most babies are born face down (referred to as 'occiput anterior'), not face up (which is referred to as 'occiput posterior', and does happen sometimes). Moreover, there is little that could possibly happen during a natural delivery that would cause the baby's neck to snap. I have to say I couldn't finish reading this book because the errors like this made me question everything the author was saying.
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75 of 87 people found the following review helpful By Just Me on January 16, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
Chip Walters offers speculation about human origins. He has no credentials in this field that I can find. I looked for reviews by researchers in the field, and could only find the blurb by Donald Johanson, who calls it "an intriguing scenario", but that comment offers no insight into whether it has any validity. If it is of real worth, I would expect to be able to find more comments by real authorities in the field. Much of Walter's book consists of looking at traits such as morality, etc. and research that has been done in that field. Many, many books look at that topic; again, quite a few written by respected researchers.

OK, you say. Then what should I read instead to learn about this fascinating subject?

I would suggest Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, by Chris Stringer instead. Stringer is a Research Leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum, according to Wikipedia and several other sources, as well as being a Fellow of the Royal Society. Much more reassuring credentials than Walter's. Also Stringer's book has good reviews from respected researchers in the field and top science magazines, such as this review quote from the magazine Nature, "“Combining the thrill of a novel with a remarkable depth of perspective, the book offers a panorama of recent developments in paleoanthropology . . . refreshingly politically incorrect.", by Jean-Jacques Hublin.
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46 of 55 people found the following review helpful By D_shrink VINE VOICE on February 3, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book on paleo-anthropology is written so that the average person can understand it all. i.e. There is a MINIMUM of long-winded scientific terms used. The author presents the material in a manner so that you want to continue from one chapter to the next to find out what happens next. Sure we know that humans are here today, but the why and how is what the author explains. The author points out that of the 27 documented hominid [human] species, 26 died out and we are the only ones left. The why part is most interesting since we certainly weren't the strongest and we don't even have the largest brains. Now that was a shocker.

The book is well researched with a nice index, a more than adequate bibliography [always appreciated in scientific type books], and more than abundant footnotes given at the end of the book listed by chapter. I prefer that rather than at the bottom of each page, which I find is more distracting, especially since most people are NOT going to care about the footnotes.

The author drifts somewhat into the socioeconomic realm when mentioning that approximately 4 out the 7 billion people presently inhabiting the earth live on the equivalent of two dollars or less per day.

He also notes that our species and for all races seems to prefer neoteny or babyfied faces [a trait mentioned by numerous other authors and scientists]. The reasons why and how this came about is the enlightening part of the equation. Along with that, the author presents a nice discourse on why human babies are born as early and undeveloped compared to other mammals.
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33 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Margaret Trawick on February 7, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was working on a similar book, involving human evolution, genetics and epigenetics, neuroscience and other fields to show how and why little human children are the most amazing creatures on the planet. But then this guy beat me to it! And he did a much better job than I could have done, bringing in information that I had not discovered yet, and explaining things in a much more readable style than I could have accomplished.
Two events are of utmost importance:
1) the mysterious decision by proto-humans, presumably Australopithecus but maybe not, to walk on their two hind feet permanently. There are some advantages to this means of locomotion, but how long, how much pain and how many false starts would it have taken to get this right? Their whole skeleton had to change dramatically, and their hind feet turned into human feet for that to happen. It would have taken millennia for this mode of standing and walking to become a real advantage. Meanwhile, they struggled. Maybe living on the savannah encouraged them to stay upright, but what forced them to stay there? Why didn't they remain arboreal, even though the forests were giving way to savannah? Why didn't they remain quadripedal and arboreal as their primate cousins did? These are a couple of many questions for which an answer will probably never be found
2) the insistent growth of the primate brain, most of all the hominid brain and the human brain, despite the pain and difficulty of childbirth and the many deaths of both mother and child resulting from this lethal combination of upright posture and big brain encased in big skull. This combination itself could have resulted in the demise of our species, and in fact all the other hominids did die out, perhaps for this very reason.
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