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on August 4, 2010
Wow. This is a fascinating, lively and beautifully written book, and it's utterly persuasive. I could not stop reading it, and now that I have finished it I can't stop recommending it. The interweaving of anecdote, theory and scientific evidence is masterful, and he has something quite extraordinary to offer to the conversation about human evolution.
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on July 4, 2012
This book presents the hypothesis that tools had and have critical impacts on the evolution of humanity: "instead of our becoming intelligent enough to invent things, the things actually allowed us to evolve into intelligent human beings (page 57)," going even further to claim that "Technology is at least as critical to our identity as out soft tissues" (page 189). Going beyond accepted theories of genetic and cultural coevolution, the author proposed revisions of Darwin's theories so as to recognize tools into a main shaper of the human species, with technology having a dynamics of its own, up to claiming that "Things rule us" (page 160).
He makes a strong case about the crucial importance of tools in shaping human evolution. Indeed, we might do well to stop using the term genetic-cultural coevolution and think instead in terms of genetic-cultural synergetic interaction. But there are two main missing links in his argumentation. First of all, the book does not present any reasonable conjectures on the processes producing the results he describes. Thus, on the critical example of infant-carrying slings he says that they were "an essential tool" (page 122) because of the need to carry infants for long distances "So the pressure to make this huge...It becomes conceivable that the first bestoke and standardized stone tools...were made in order to obtain the materials for... the simple fabrication process for basic slings" (page 123). Maybe this is conceivable, but "being conceivable" is a far cry from "being likely" even if we accept abduction as a reasonable logic of discovery.
The second missing link concerns the mental bases of advanced technologies, which are not a continuation of stone-age technologies but depend on science and its philosophical underpinnings. In other words, the author neglects non-material dimensions of culture which became critical both for the shapes of human societies and their impacts on evolution and for the advancements of technologies and their impacts on culture and humanity. Therefore, it is hard to avoid the impression that too large a dose of materialistic determinism hides in parts of the author's approach.
For sure the author ignores the real possibility that the future-impacting powers of emerging technologies outrun the mental capacities of humanity to control these powers and prevent the demise of the human species as a result of misuses of technologies. In other words, the likelihood of increasingly dangerous gaps between the evolution of tools and the evolution of human intelligence, including both moral and cognitive capacities, is not taken up in the book. Instead the mood of the book is unwarrantedly optimistic about the future of humanity ignoring dismal scenarios that may result from the very views on the role of tools in human evolution which he proposes. Thus, the possible need to impose limitations on the invention and uses of technologies seems to be beyond the books horizons.
Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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on June 15, 2011
The headline in this book arrives six pages before the end: it is the theory that the invention of the baby-carrying sling allowed humans to evolve from woodland apes two million years ago. The sling would have solved the problem of how a bipedal species with a narrow pelvis and constricted birth canal could dramatically increase its brain size. The solution was to allow the infants to be born prematurely when the head was just small enough to pass but too big to support itself unaided. For the parent to remain productive while raising an infant, technology was needed to carry it - an artificial marsupial pouch. Ever since then, says the author, humans have been completely dependent on technology to the point where it "has taken a leading role in evolution" (p 194) by separating us from our environment.

The author sees Tasmania as a test case for his theory. According to previous accounts, the aboriginal inhabitants lost their technology after they were cut off from mainland Australia by rising sea levels. The explanation for this has been that skills were forgotten because the Tasmanians did not have enough neighbours to refresh them. The author sees this as a challenge because if our minds evolved to invent technology, why could we not reinvent it? He argues very persuasively that the Tasmanians remained totally dependent on technology, that reports of their backsliding were exaggerated, and that a reduced toolkit was sensible and comparable to that of other groups in analogous situations. His evidence does not seem to me to undermine the theory that larger populations are more technologically innovative, in fact it enriches it. The Tasmanians had ideas that might have helped some mainlanders too.

The book has copious and detailed descriptions of archaeological finds to justify the argument that we have long been dependent on technology. Whether the author succeeds in showing that our use of technology amounts to `artificial selection' displacing `natural selection' (p. 28), that `survival of the fittest' does not apply to humans and that `Darwin was fundamentally wrong about evolution's causes' (p. 7) depends on his definition of terms. His sample definition of `fitness' (p. 28) as `the ability to adapt to one's environment' is quite original. He could have made a better case for technology causing artificial selection by pointing out that stone weapons made it possible for the weaklings to regularly cull any would-be alpha males. This would explain the disappearance of violent ape dominance behaviour from our species.

The author makes it clear that his book aims to answer the key question of `how' humans managed to increase brain size (the baby sling), not `why' (p. 29). He briefly mentions some explanations of `why'. The `standard answer' (social organisation) he dismisses as a theory that the larger brain `made us more similar to what we were to become' (p. 69). He is surprised that our brain has grown so big, given that it now far outranks the competition (p. 189). If a cheetah were to improve its speed as much as we have improved our brain, says Taylor, it would be capable of 200 miles an hour when the top speed of its prey is only 50. He does not examine whether we faced greater challenges than today in our period of brain evolution that might have justified its expansion. He mentions another theory: that the size increase was driven by technological warfare. This is in line with his final conclusion: `technology, within a framework of 2 to 3 million years, has, physically and mentally, made us. We long ago began adapting our minds and bodies to a hidden agenda. The result is a new, symbiont form of life - one that breaks all the rules' (p. 198). This sounds like the epidemiological theory of culture that holds that we've been `taken over' by it, except that technology would have begun the takeover ten times as long ago.
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on August 17, 2010
This is an fascinating book which is well argued and beautifully written. The idea that the early adoption of technology enabled us to dominate the planet although we have become the weakest ape is highly though-provoking. This book is a must for anyone interested in human evolution.
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on December 19, 2010
Well written and eye opening. Any of the Darwinian Realists out there will enjoy this book. Makes one think till it hurts...and that's a great place to be.
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on November 24, 2014
I think this iconoclastic book should receive way more attention. Very persuasive arguments and evidence. Deep scholarship yet very well written for a popular audience.
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on September 29, 2011

"There are seven species of great ape on [this] planet. Six of them live in nature. One cannot live without artificial aid. Humans would die without tools, clothes, fire, and shelter. So how, if technology compensates us for everything we do, did we ever manage to evolve in the first place? With such innate differences, how did the weakest ape come out on top?...

This book traces humanity back more than 2 million a point just after we diverged from the ancestors of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans...

This book insists that there was an actual moment when we became human...It was a moment seized by a female [who], for the very first time...turned to technology to protect her child. In that moment, everything that we were going to become was made not just possible but inevitable."

The above extract comes from this interesting book Timothy Taylor, Ph.D. He is an archaeologist who teaches at the University of Bradford in the U.K. He is also an author and editor-in-chief of the "Journal of World Prehistory."

A major mystery of human origins is how our ancestors separated from other great apes and set out on a different evolutionary path. With time, they began to walk upright, lost their body hair, and grew relatively larger brains. These new physical traits changed our ancestors to such a degree that they could no longer exist in nature with the other primates unless they had special protection. While Darwin's theory explains our common descent, scientists are still trying to discover why we became the weakest ape.

Taylor's answer: it was an early use of objects, tools, and new technology that changed us thus allowing us to initially survive and eventually thrive. Examples include the use of baby slings that allowed for the freedom of arms to use tools and fire that enabled cooking. As a result of our continued ingenuity through tool use we grew significantly larger brains. He even argues that humans made choices that allowed them greater control over their own evolution.

In fact, this process continues today as we push the limits of science and technology, extending our powers.

Unfortunately, Taylor provides little evidence and, in my view, weak arguments to support his claims. As well, he seems to overlook some obvious problems. For example, take his claim of tool-use leading to increased brain size. It seems to me that chimpanzees have probably been using tools as long as humans but this has not led to increased brain size. The same reasoning can be extended to other animals known to use tools.

Also, there are frequent (and long) digressions concerning areas of human cultural evolution that, in my view, are not well-connected to the main arguments. In my case, this lead to confusion and sometimes even frustration.

Despite everything I've said, this book is quite interesting in parts. It is full of original ideas, packed with information, and provides good speculation about the prehistoric past of humans.

Finally, Taylor, in emphasizing human intelligence, discusses the famous "Drake equation" (after astrophysicist Frank Drake). He says "N is the answer Drake wanted, the number of technological civilizations in the universe." NO. `N' is the number of technological civilizations in our Galaxy.

In conclusion, this is a good book for those interested in reasonable speculation about the prehistoric past of humans.

(first published 2010; introduction; 8 chapters; conclusion; main narrative 205 pages; acknowledgements; notes; bibliography; index)

<<Stephen Pletko, London, Ontario, Canada>>

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on November 19, 2014
Are we the end of the chain or is there something after us?
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on August 17, 2010
This was a great read! especially for people who understand the distinction between natural and "artificial selection." The "3rd System" that Taylor hypothesizes is intriguing as a priori to the rapid escalation of human intelligence and brain-size, going way beyond what would be considered "biologically necessary" according to the accepted view of natural selection/evolution.

One thing that I found important which I think Mr Taylor missed is that while slings are important for carrying children- SHOES are even more important, especially when your weight (a woman's, presumably) has been increased by 10 or so pounds (the child) and you're walking long distances on two feet vs all fours. I'm thinking that skin pelts wrapped around the feet and sewn with plant fiber may have been developed even before the sling. No fossilization to prove it. Maybe the author would comment.
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on June 12, 2016
Excellent, quick shipping
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