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on April 26, 2012
This book demonstrates that Ian Tattersall is an exceptional scientist well schooled in the art of critical thinking. The points of evidence are sharply and correctly presented. Meanwhile, Tattersall applies a lifetime of logical thinking to sift out fantasies and legends that sometimes blossom in the field of paleoanthropology. He does not "take sides" in controversies, but explains to the reader what is, or may be, right and wrong about what others posit. Tattersall does not allow flights of fancy by others to run too far, but he remains open to speculation and learned conjecture consistent with science and logic.

A reader who wants to learn what the science community knows of the science of paleoanthropolgy at a level that omits pedantic and tedious inside material but remains intellectuallly challenging will find that here. From that, without being romantic in how he writes, Tattersall incites the reader to love what Tattersall himself does about this field.

This is a great read for curious people with a keen interest in what makes us human. Along the way, a reader already acquainted with the field, will enjoy both the pleasure of thinking that Tattersall makes sensible observations and corrections of misguided thinking. Read it all to get the marvelous Coda. One of my favorites there concerns facile generalizations, "[I]t nearly always turns out that these 'universals' are either not uniquely human, or not universal among humans." I also especially like, "[T]here is no need to look for special explanations for altruism when this feature is matched on the other side of the curve by selfishness."

This is good stuff, folks.
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on January 2, 2014
This book is just what I was looking for. It provides answers to many of my questions about human origins in an intelligent and fascinating way. Many times while reading it I had Eureka! moments of insight and astonishment, kind of like that first homo sapien to use language must have felt. Well, maybe not that good, but close. It took me a long time to read this book because on practically every page there was some new amazing information that I wanted to research immediately online so I could see pictures and get even more information about the things Ian described. It's mind-blowing to realize just how short our history as symbolic beings really is and how close we came to that not happening. Concepts like population bottlenecks, founder events, and private speech are completely new to me and explain so much about how this all could have happened. Wow! Of course! And why didn't I think of that! Thank you, Ian Tattersall!
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on December 22, 2014
Sort of a long read, but well laid out and informative. Depending on the reader's background and depth of interest in the subject, it might be a lot to read for some...not your light summer read. But it does tie all known archeological information together as well as can be done, explains the holes in the archeological record on crucial issues and lays out various conflicting theories on unresolved points. I enjoyed it very much...and if my own knowledge were broader I probably would have enjoyed it even more. I came away with a much clearer picture of human history and, to some degree, a better understanding of why we are as we are.
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on April 1, 2015
Ian Tattersall is a very good science writer. He makes a topic like Paleoanthropology accessible for the non-science oriented mind. It is remarkable that we are here at all and that we came so far in such a short time. 55,000 years ago the African Lucky Lady gave us birth, and we haven't stopped thiniking about it either. Read this book and you may come away with a whole different perspective on what a wonderful life we have.
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on May 11, 2015
FIVE STARS FOR THE BOOK THUS FAR. Informative, just what I was looking for, but...have a care. I am early in the book on a Kindle Voyage. Some diagrams are very difficult--no, impossible--to read. I'm speaking of the "Tree of Li fe," an *essential* diagram, of our early ancestors to homo sapiens. Images of skulls and other skeletal parts and the captions are very small. I love the Voyage for its portability, but I need diagrams that I can read. I've ordered a hardcopy.
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on March 1, 2015
If you are interested in human origins, this is a book you have to buy.

Tattersall is a widely respected expert. His 50 professional years of familiarity, fascination and insight in the field are apparent as are his critical and clear headed thinking. As Curator Emeritus at Anthropology Division of the American Museum of Natural History he understands how to make this science accessible and interesting to the public.

If you've already looked into human origins, you will find the content interesting. If not, you might get more out of it if you read an introduction book first.(Robin McKie's Dawn of Man: THE STORY OF HUMAN EVOLUTION is a good such book, and with a more balanced viewpoint). This is a summary book, covering most of the field and mostly up to date, concisely condensing the field's important aspects. The book provides a great overview to interpret future developments in the field. Someone who with a very advanced background may find it simplified - but Ian is an important person in this field and this book is full of his opinions and speculations that are worth reading if you haven't read him before. And his occasional controversial viewpoints and strong opinions should be food for thought.

The majority of the book reviews the interpretation of hominids fossils and their relationship over time. But the book also delves almost equally into a variety of related fields: genetics, biology, life style and features of living apes, skeletal morphology, prehistoric artifacts and chemical analysis. It also includes areas not usually discussed in other books: molecular forensics, language, developmental biology, brain development, psychology and more. Ian masterly interprets and weaves these disparate sources to help bridge information that is missing in the fossil record and create a fabric outlining human origins.

The book is information dense, not light summer reading. Several reviewers wrote they read the book twice and got more from it on the second read. True for me as well.

Literary Quality
Some readers state that Ian writing is easy to read while others find it "foggy" or difficult. Both viewpoints may be true. The book's value is its content and not its literary style.

Its content is presented in a light entertaining way, not in academia writing. Ian presents scientific information, which can be dry and cocooned in jargon, in natural language and an relaxed manner. He is not afraid of speculating about subjects that are not directly accessible from the fossil evidence on subjects that the lay reader will be more interested in. He is a natural story teller, adding surprise and color. So in this sense he is very readable.

But Ian's is not good at basic English exposition: paragraphs are run-ons with two or more topics. He over-qualifies, sometimes qualifies his qualifications - even digressing into equivocation. His desire to be objective (a rare trait among anthropologists) sometimes means he over vacillates. He can be disorderly, jumping around too much. Ian's earlier book was worst, his skills have improved a good deal, but there is still room to improve.

Main Concerns
Tattersall delves into what it means to be human, and how scientists have variously defined over time the criteria that indicate a species is considered to have a direct lineage to mankind. His summary is one of the best write ups I have seen on this.

His main focus is on at what really makes us different to other species - and especially the discontinuities in evolution that made us human. He is also interested in teasing out the critical qualities of our ancestors that made us the in the end the sole Hominid species and "The Masters of the Planet".

I dislike spoiler reviews, giving up too much so I will mostly just mention categories of information. Besides concise reviews of the major fossils: role of genetics in understanding human evolution, non-linear human evolution, biological change is related to environmental change while technological change does not track species, symbolic reasoning, brain architecture, unique nature of our intelligence and reason for its development, language, changing definition of "Human" and the unique status of humans.

However, there are three areas I feel I should say more:

Classification/Systematics: A big problem in Paleoanthropology is a failure to agree on about this field's basics. The vacillations between categorization ("splitters" and "lumpers") and dizzying assignment of fossils to various names greatly adds to the confusion in the field for the interested lay public and amateurs. Ian provides an excellent review of the history of species classification and naming conventions and assignments, on page 94, that helps make sense of the mess that has been made. He hints at some of the remaining problems - but I would have preferred he had more explicit and given us his own opinion on those.

Sudden Change: This book is in some ways a second version of his earlier book - "Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness", where a great deal is said about 'Punctuated Evolution' This is not mentioned in this book probably because Punctuated Evolution, as a catch phrase, has passed out of fashion among most evolutionary scientists. But the concept is still here in a section he called "Sudden Change" and mentioned briefly elsewhere, because it is obviously part of Human Evolution. Being downgraded is ironic because a recent partial explanation has been offered by mutations in regulatory genes - which Ian does go into.

Bipedality is the first "human" trait to show up in the Hominid fossils. He briefly gives the most common conjectures made for its occurrence as most Anthropology books. He also covers the most likely explanation - the expatiations of a pre-existing upright posture of certain larger tree dwelling Miocene and Pleistocene apes. This makes great sense and is an important explanation. So the real mystery is not verticality, but the progressive expatiation of this verticalness to take it to the ground and modification of the foot from a grasping one, to a more human-like one. Ian's low key writing style, it's possible to miss this point which is why I mentioned it. Other books give a stronger presentation and more detail. And I was disappointed that more is not made about the critical role increasingly committed bipedality played in guiding hominid evolution and other human traits.

Ian rightly puts expatiation rather than direct functional adaptations as the fundamental evolutionary processes in his books. Evolution involves expiating and then selectively exploiting existing mutations for new uses/advantages. And he explains that a species is a package deal - with a cluster of advantages and disadvantage in certain circumstances. The book is worth reading for these points alone.

Recommendations to the Reader
Buy the book. I say buy it instead of just read it, because it's one that you are likely going to want to underline and make notes in the margins and read several times. An improved index would increase its value as a reference book. Speaking of reference books, I would read concurrently "The First Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans, which goes into greater detail about fossils and their status and provides reconstructions lacking in this book. But this book provides the interpretation and context lacking in The First Human. The books nicely complement each other. Another complementary book is Ian's earlier book: Becoming Human: etc. But read this book first and that book as an addendum for additional information about processes, not species. That book is also more out of date and by reading this book first you will recognize those areas.

Problems and Suggestions to the Author.
Improving the expository quality is my strongest suggestion. It's the reason I rated the book a four instead of the five your content deserves. I am hope in later editions you find a better rewrite editor or a graduate English student to help that time around. This book, as with most books, has some errors- read danielx's review for some of them. I applaud for you discussing speculations and conjectures - it adds richness to the book but I recommend you make it more apparent when you are doing so. Your focus on what makes humans different and unique can verge on chauvinistic - although less so here than your earlier book.

The book could use many more illustrations; maps of sites and illustration or photos of fossils for every species to just mention a few areas. Since you are a curator, I know you understand the role of visual aids in understanding and learning. Treat this book as you do the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins. The index could be expanded and you might consider a glossary for the less advanced reader.

You might consider going electronic to build upon the book. It deserves a blog by you and a discussion board (which might provide you better feedback - and this is one book that should generate a lot of discussion). If you go electronic, you can add supporting information, your own commentary and notes on the book and more information about additional readings. And you could put the needed glossary and additional illustrations there, as a way to contain publishing costs. Maybe some of the illustrations could come from the Spitzer Hall as a way to promote it. And the website allows updates in the rapidly changing field. It could even become a major website on Human Origins.

Finally, despite the problems and suggestions section you deserve accolades for what you have accomplished. This is a very difficult subject area to delve into deeply and to present in a condensed format and you have produced a `masterly" piece of work.
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on February 8, 2013
With the significant paleontological advances in the opening years of this century, I have been awaiting a major summary for the interested layperson. A 2012-copyrighted offering from Ian Tattersall appeared to be a good candidate, and it is. He summarizes the discoveries from proconsul to H. floresiensis and even the find in the Denisova cave. What is particularly interesting is his efforts to illuminate the progress in brain power and culture of hominins over the ages, and the efforts to ascertain the progress in human symbolic thought and speech. Genetic analyses also are evaluated. In short, the book provides an excellent summary of our state of knowledge of human evolution, which should allow the interested non-professional to understand and evaluate new discoveries as they are reported in the near future.
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on December 23, 2012
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was an interesting discussion of what is known today about the evolution of modern man. Certainly some of it was speculative, as the author admits, but Tattersall describes our current knowledge, points out controversies, and admits that years from now the evolutionary picture may be very different. He enhances his narrative with discussions of the behavior of chimpanzees and how different it is from humans. The discussion of language evolution includes a fascinating description of deaf children who invented their own sign language. My one minor criticism is that I would have liked to see more illustrations.
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on January 30, 2014
Ian Tattersall is one of those remarkable scholars who can take dusty old facts and not only make them interesting, but also exciting. If you are wondering how and why your ancestors came down from the trees and became modern homo sapiens, you need to read Professor Tattersall's book.
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on July 17, 2013
I'm a Tattersall fan. I have enjoyed most of his writing from articles to books. This volume shoots for breadth more than depth and as a result should be read with an overview expectation. If you were going to read only one book on the hominid story I would easily recommend this over others.

My reasons are the author's devotion to the field, his unique position as a curator at a first class institution, and his willingness to revise his opinion as shifts in data warrant.
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