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"...the Distillation of a Longish Career..."
on April 9, 2012
"Our narrative-loving species," as Ian Tattersall characterizes Homo sapiens, has long searched for the quintessentially human feature - that which unambiguously denotes our kind. Throughout history several unsatisfying candidates for that keystone feature have been offered up, including, inter alia, bipedalism, brain size, tool use, and language. For Tattersall, who has spent a career devoted to the question, that quintessential element is H. sapiens' use of symbolism.
In the early chapters of Masters of the Planet Tattersall introduces the reader to the practice of paleoanthropology, its essential vocabulary, and the state of the science. The reader gets just enough information about early hominid cranial shapes, dental wear patterns, skeletal variations, tool use, and geochronology as is absolutely necessary. We visit Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa as fossils and their strata are carefully unearthed, dated, and interpreted. We learn about early hominids' toolkits, their social lives, and survival mechanisms. We also get a refresher on genetics and geology.
It is only in the last thirty thousand years of the two and a half million year panorama of successive hominid speciation and extinction that our use of symbolism is unequivocally documented. It is only when cave art appears at Chauvet, Lascaux, and Altamira that we are entirely satisfied that our ancestors have become as cognitive as we. This transition, Tattersall points out, would be utterly unbelievable if it had not actually happened. For the first hundred thousand years of our species' existence we were unaware of our brain's latent capacity for symbolism.
When such new applications for already evolved anatomical features are introduced they are called "exaptations." Tattersall suggests that human exceptionalism is the result of one particular exaptation, the use of our brains (specifically the angular gyrus) for symbolic thought. That symbolism leveraged our tool kit, empowered us with language, and made us Masters of the Planet. Tattersall's thoughtful "Coda" entreats responsibility in our custodianship of that planet, now that we are its masters.