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The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent: Why We See So Well Paperback – October 30, 2011

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (October 30, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674061969
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674061965
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.2 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #793,442 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


With this fascinating book, which will certainly challenge many views accepted by the current generation of primate specialists, Isbell has provided the basis for far-reaching reinterpretations of the origins of our distinctive intelligence accompanied by seemingly irrational and emotional processes. 
--Gordon M. Burghardt (APA Review of Books)

This book is an intellectual tour de force that would have pleased Charles Darwin. Isbell presents a well-argued case for the startling thesis that snakes have played a key role in shaping evolution of the primate brain. Her comparative perspective draws on geology, paleontology, biogeography, molecular biology, genetics, biological anthropology, nutrition, neuroscience, and psychology. An engaged, lively, and lucid writer, Isbell makes even complex arguments accessible. Her book should be of great interest to biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and anyone who wonders who we humans are. (Arne Öhman, Karolinska Institutet)

Successful reconstruction of evolutionary history is like the very best detective work. It takes dogged collection of evidence, scientific testing wherever possible and careful application of logic every step of the way. In this presentation of her innovative Snake Detection Theory. Lynne Isbell effectively takes the reader on a voyage of discovery, notching up vital clues along the way. The text stimulating, entertaining and above all instructive—presents the idea that evolution of special features of the visual system in primates was linked to the threat from snakes, which is real only when they are close by. In short, the author traces snake phobia back to early primate origins. The problem is more than theoretical: one estimate gives 150,000 human deaths a year from snakebites, mainly in the tropics. In assembling the evidence, drawing on her extensive experience of studying primates in the field, Isbell covers a great deal of other topics, ranging from continental drift through molecular systematics and on to neurobiology. In passing, she builds in her independent conclusion that primates must have originated far earlier than the known fossil record suggests, leading her to favour the 'Out of India' model of their origins. This proposal is now supported by abundant molecular evidence but still encounters fierce resistance from paleontologists. Isbell's Snake Detection Theory is no less controversial, but she has compiled her case with care. At the very least, primatologists (including myself) will henceforth have to pay more attention to snakes in theory as well as in practice. (Robert Martin, Field Museum)

The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent expertly summarizes everything from reptile evolution and field observations of primates to the biochemistry of vision and the neurobiology of fear. More importantly Lynne Isbell's snake detection theory offers a cohesive explanation for many uniquely primate attributes and even has implications for the origin of language in humans. Her first-rate scholarship will inspire new waves of research in a wide range of disciplines and this reader-friendly book will reward anyone interested in its subjects. (Harry W. Greene, Cornell University, author of Snakes: the Evolution of Mystery in Nature)

In a wide ranging, scholarly volume that is both provocative and enjoyable, Lynne Isbell develops her novel thesis that exceptional aspects of vision in humans and other primates evolved largely to help detect and avoid venomous snakes. Isbell cites the widespread fear of snakes in humans and other primates as clear evidence that they have been a danger over our evolutionary past. The book takes us on a tour of relevant scientific disciplines as Isbell reveals theories of the selective pressures thought to be important in the evolution of primates, presents the basics of the visual systems of primates, and discusses the impact of snakes and other predators on the primate survival. Isbell argues that differences in the visual systems of primates are at least partly the result of New World monkeys and Madagascar prosimian evolving in landmasses without venomous snakes. While Isbell's proposal is sure to generate some controversy, the scope and depth of her present volume is impressive. (Jon Kaas, Vanderbilt University)

In The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent, Lynne A. Isbell weaves together facts from anthropology, neuroscience, palaeontology, and psychology to explain that our emotional connection to snakes has a long evolutionary history. This history, Isbell says, is responsible not only for snake fear—the serpent in the garden of Eden, the world-creating Rainbow Serpent of Australian aboriginal myth and B-grade cinema fare—but also for our keen primate vision and perhaps even our facility with language… The book is always rewarding… Her snake tales from long years in the bush are informative and often funny. Isbell writes solid evolutionary science and also takes calculated risks. (Barbara J. King Times Literary Supplement 2009-10-09)

The anthropologist and animal behaviorist Lynne Isbell elegantly posits here that the human facility with language evolved largely thanks to snakes. Coolly testing hypotheses and assessing evidence across an impressive range of disciplines—neuroscience, primate behavior, paleogeography, molecular biology, and genetics—she argues that our distant primate relatives developed their exceptional ability to see and identify 'objects that were close by and in front of them' in order to detect and avoid what was almost certainly their most dangerous predator—the snake… And so, Isbell avers, Genesis has it right: the snake made us human. This groundbreaking, intellectually scintillating work is nonfiction at its absolute best. Isbell ranges widely, unpacks her evidence meticulously, synthesizes disparate and difficult material economically, addresses counterarguments scrupulously, and writes cleanly, often gracefully, and occasionally even playfully. (The Atlantic 2010-04-01)

About the Author

Lynne A. Isbell is Professor of Anthropology and Animal Behavior, University of California, Davis.

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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By cu-neurosci on June 25, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This is a marvelous but modest book that answered a number of big questions I've had for years (primate evolution, continental drift, primate food selection). It's scope of focus is surprisingly large. The author handles a wide range of topics clearly and expertly. I learned loads of good and interesting things. Reading the book was even fun when the author talks about her personal experiences in the field observing primates.

I'm a neuroscientist (auditory) and found Isbell's neuroscience discussion clear but also shockingly insightful. By taking an evolutionary view into our vision systems, she was able to clearly delineate the three distinct vision systems that humans have and the roles they play today in our lives. Her speculation that 'blind sight' arises from one of our ancestral (non-conscious) vision systems was a breathtaking bull's eye. Her insights into our vision system were more insightful and intellectually satisfying than I've gotten from other vision folks in neuroscience. I only wish she'd now take on a sequel for the auditory system. Bravo to her!
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Ruben on April 27, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This is a fascinating book, full of fascinating insights into primate (and human) evolution. I have rarely read a book with so many new ideas: from primate origins to co-evolution to the evolution of vision to "blind sight" (very cool) to the emergence of language. If even half of these ideas hold up in the crucible of future science, this will still be a major contribution. Some chapters are a sheer delight, and some of the writing covers more difficult material. (There is even a fairly accessible explanation of the neurophysiological information, perhaps because Dr. Isbell is not a neurophysiologist!) Of interest to anyone interested in human or primate evolution, or in vision.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Doug Wussler on June 8, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Short but dense presentation of the Snake Detection Theory, the author's theory on why primate vision evolved to be so much better than other mammals' vision. The case is made that snakes were the primary predator of primates throughout their evolution and this pressure selected for visual adaptations.

The author assumes very little and covers a great deal without getting tedious. It is fascinating to reconsider the origin of the story of Eve, the serpent and the forbidden fruit in the context of the author's presentation.

I give the book 5 stars because of the awesome job the author does making her case as she sweeps through eons. This is great science communicated with energy and clarity.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I wholeheartedly embrace the Snake Detection theory. The data presented by Lynne Isbell are consistent with the theory that primate brain responded to the challenge of detection of immobile predators by expanding the neural substrate dedicated to vision.

In addition to an exceptional theory described in the book, Lynne Isbell presents an excellent detailed account of the primate visual system organization. In fact the bigger part of the book is dedicated to the description primate visual areas and their connections. This book provides some of the best description of the mechanism of visual target identification. Lynne Isbell especially excels in explaining the separate mechanisms of pre-conscious awareness of fearful stimuli (based on amygdala and superior colliculi) as opposed to conscious perception of those stimuli (based on cerebral cortex). It is with great enthusiasm that I recommend this book to everyone interested in the study of both human vision and primate evolution.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By ROROTOKO on August 25, 2009
Format: Hardcover
"The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent" is on the ROROTOKO list of cutting-edge intellectual nonfiction. Professor Isbell's book interview ran here as cover feature on August 7, 2009.
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