- Series: Harvest Book
- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: Mariner Books; First edition (July 8, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0156006537
- ISBN-13: 978-0156006538
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 24 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,553,773 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness First Edition
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Monogamy. Bipedalism. Tools. Language. Intelligence. Why on Earth did we develop all those tricks? Though it's trendy to diminish the differences between humans and other species, most of us just can't help noticing our often-striking peculiarities and wondering how they arose. Paleontologist Ian Tattersall's story of human origins is as compelling as a well-designed museum exhibit--no surprise, as he is Curator of Anthropology for the American Museum of Natural History. His prose, while not flashy, is satisfyingly clear and unapologetically fascinated with its topic. Covering genetics, evolutionary theory, primate anatomy, and archaeology, Becoming Human explains how and why our ancestors adapted to their surroundings to produce such clever, talented, immodest progeny. If you find it preposterous that a dumb, skinny ape can go from foraging for fruit and fleeing from lions to splitting the atom and solving Rubik's cube in just five million years, this book might change your mind. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
What defining characteristic, if any, separates us from the rest of creation? Many books on human evolution (from Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man to Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct and beyond) have sought the holy grail of a defining characteristic for the species. Here, Tattersall (The Last Neanderthal, etc.), curator in the Department of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, takes us through the gradual development, over millions of years and countless refinements, of Homo sapiens, often consulting the fossil record for corroboration of the innovations he takes to be significant. Tattersall makes it perfectly clear that he doubts studies suggesting that chimpanzees, using American Sign Language, can communicate with humans to any meaningful degree?thus preserving verbal language as a candidate. He presents himself throughout as a man of strongly held opinions, confident that the "out of Africa" model of human evolution is far superior to the "multi-regional" hypothesis, that Neanderthals could not speak as we do and that "punctuated equilibrium" (the theory that isolated genetic innovation is followed by a spread throughout a population) should become the new evolutionary paradigm. The evidence presented for such beliefs, however, is rarely gone into in enough detail for readers' scales to balance on their own. Ultimately, and unsurprisingly, Tattersall considers symbolic thought (as "epitomized by our linguistic abilities") as the best candidate for the attribute that sets us apart from other species. Although Tattersall provides some moving descriptions of early cave art and other human endeavors, he is less successful at producing a volume that stands out in a crowded field.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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The author is curator of the Anthropology Department at the American Museum of Natural History in New York (as well as a recognized authority of Hominid fossils) - and it shows: the content his work is generally accessible and interesting to the lay public. Not an introductory text, but appropriate for those just beginning to get serious. His insights and sometimes controversial viewpoints and strong opinions should also be meat to chew-on for the more advanced reader.
Some books on hominids are dense, compilations of journal articles - with scientific references, detailed analysis, qualifying statements and conditions, and jargon. Ian's isn't - and so more accessible. But readers looking for a book with details about fossils are going to be disappointed. (There are better books for this, including several written by Tattersall)
But it has some literary problems that limit it, such as only one illustration (sketch of a poignant cave painting), no photos, maps, charts or illustrations. Surprising since as a curator he must know their importance in his Museum display - and accordingly may have access to those resources.
Ian's is not good at English Exposition: paragraphs are run-on with two or more topics. He over-qualifies, sometimes qualifies his qualifications. He's a bit wordy. In this book his organization is disorderly, jumping around far too much. He often states he is going to develop a point in more detail later - which might be able to avoided if the book was better organized.
Ian establishes and develops some major points that tend to run through out the book: the impact that climate (and habitat change) has had on hominid and mammals evolution in general - leading to isolation and species change.
Niles Elderidge is also at the AMNH and influenced Ian. Ian is a proponent of Punctuated Equilibrium. (With good reason - even opposed to it generally usually end up conceding its strong role in the evolution of our lineage. He singles out 4 instances where it occurred and notes that Punctuated equilibrium can also be seen in tools development. He points that tool development does not track with species changes but that biological changes do track with climate changes. (He goes into quite a bit of detail on speciation due to isolation and environmental stresses). He also quotes Niles in other areas.
To Ian, evolution is non-linear. He sees it as a bush producing and bush trimming process - and one that is erratic and wholly random. (IMHO - he pushes this point perspective too far.)
He goes into quite a bit of detail about the rise and role of symbolism and what that indicates in human intelligence, its presence in art and its connection leading to language (and the importance of language in subsequent evolution/human history and social structure.)
There is much more here - you will just have to take a look.
The last two chapters attempt to deal with what it means to be human and what light science can cast on it. He also takes on Evolutionary Psychology and genome focused evolution - which are seen here in contrast to evolution at the species and above level (macro evolution) - the focus of this book. But these last two chapters are the least successful in the book. Literary shortcomings are more severe: wording becomes denser, run-on paragraphs get longer and qualification becomes equivocation - ending up in vagueness.
There are important viewpoints in the last chapters that deserve to be developed and clarified - but I am not sure that they belong in this book, if it is rewritten. The sense of this section is far more philosophical and speculative. The audience for the first part of the book is probably going not the same as for these later chapters.
Now 17 years old its missing many species and needs updating of many that he does report on.
There are multiple areas where he suggests that outstanding questions may be resolved in the future - some of which have advanced.
Ian is a chauvinist. He has an obvious bias towards the west / Europe, in the hominid fossil record, art and intelligence. East Asia only gets one or two sentences? Australia nothing.
His bias extends to species. His position on Neanderthal is out of date - (rejected possibility of Moderns inter-breeding with them) they may have been behaviorally and cognitively closer to Moderns than he gives them credit for. His western bias extends to the world of art - as another reviewer pointed out: " 'he offers the astonishing statement that "art, as such, is a concept invented by Western civilization.' This proposal might be forgiven as an editing oversight, if the remainder of the book didn't sustain it."
Given the prominent role things such as art, symbolism, language it's surprising he didn't go more in Cultural and Social Evolution. He hits around the edges of these fields without really developing them.
And there is very little on genetics and what it has to say about evolution. Recent understandings about the role of mutation of regulating genes goes a long ways toward explaining a reason for some Punctuated Evolutionary events, for instance.
There are still important writings here. I hope Ian will take the time to update it in the near future.
Recommendation to Buy
Tattersall later wrote "Masters of the Planet", which I was hoping would be that rewrite - but its not. "Masters" does tend to cover the same material but is more up to date, overcomes some of this books problems (better organized and has added a few illustrations, charts etc). That book focuses on the fossils (190 pages vs less than 60 here) and consequently doesn't go into as much details as this book on evolution, art and symbolism, the brain and intelligence and other processes involved in the transition of Hominids as discussed here.
These books do compliment each other. This book is more about interpretations and implications that can be extracted from the fossils. Involves a lot of deductions and (and some think controversial) speculations - by an important person in the field. "Masters" has more fossil details. This book is more generalization about what it means to be "Human" and the processes to get there.
So - read "Masters" first or concurrently with this one - so you will know where data and interpretations have been updated - and have the detail and visual aids that are lacking in this book. Read this book second to gain insight to processes and implications about the fossil record and evolutionary processes involved and Ian's opinions about them. When I wrote this review a used book goes for a penny and new books as low as $5, so it's affordable as a supplementary text. I just wouldn't read it alone.
I agree with him on many points that he makes.
Ralph Hermansen 9/7/06
The goal here is to find why humans are different. Chimps make tools, dolphins have the largest brain-to-body-mass ratio of any species on earth, Neanderthal ceremonially buried their dead, gorillas can be taught sign language, baboons engage in deception as they attribute states of mind to others to predict their behavior. Jane Goodall even witnessed bands of chimps make coordinated war on each other not so unlike the way humans did in earnest once accumulations from the agriculture revolution gave us something serious to kill for. But others have not painted cave walls in southwest Europe (30000ya), wrote sonnets or split atoms. As far as we know, claims Tattersall, a dramatic difference is rule based, abstract language. Arbitrary sounds associated to objects (the sound "house" only means "house" to those who speak English) or more intangibly, to symbolic references - mathematics, metaphysics, democracy. The order of these arbitrary sounds convey their own meaning. "Man paints house." "House paints man." Hence the rules - grammar - such that listeners using the same code understand correctly the intended message. Without the rules and vocabulary, a foreign tongue - if you've ever heard one - sounds like one continuous modulated word.
Throughout the book we wonder if we are really better off now than in the harsh, survivalist past. Through success in controlling the environment, our ancestors could have never imagined to what ends we would carry this emergent property of stellar byproducts structured in the form of brains. This control also allowed for an art explosion - according to Tattersall an element of existence central to ancient man. While the system we moderns created makes art alien and impractical - or worse, creates "modern art" - the past allowed our ancestors to explore this innately human characteristic. Gould's punctuated equilibrium seems to apply here to human innovation as readily as it does to speciation - periods of abrupt development followed by periods of stasis.
Of utmost importance is Tattersall's note on climate's affect on the human trajectory. The coordination of climate change and human creative behavior may seem obvious (stated again some years later in Spencer Wells', Pandora's Seed) - e.g. if it's suddenly colder, invent a coat. But we find, for example, that cave painting peaked with the last glacial maxima. Did selective pressures, including the loss of once available prey animals, expand the perception of art as magic over animals imaged? That is, did a natural ice age select for accelerating abstractions such as religion - the calling of powers to calm a changing world? (Given Neanderthal burials, the ice age was far from the first such hypothetical natural selection of behaviors.) Interestingly these paintings are composed of fewer large predators over time. Were the painters simply reporting the numbers - eliminated by climate change or human success in the competition game?
An excellent section on brain anatomy clarifies our biggest problem. The combination of onion-like layering and expansion of existent features to make up those layers, resulting in the untidy evolution of our brains built over early versions all the way back to common mammal, even reptilian-like ancestors. The sad news is that structure implies behavior. Our higher thought centers are mediated by sections in charge of our lowest functions - feeding, fighting, fleeing, sex. Is this why males so frequently compromise themselves for females against better judgments, rationalizing irrational acts, only to suffer their actions after hormones fade? Males of many species die in that contest. That fabulous machine in our skulls is also a mess and far from an ideal design. It makes us warlike, yet compassionate, lawyers, yet artists. We're stuck with it and as Tattersall tells it, this, contrary to modern historians, is why history repeats itself.
Most recent customer reviews
Mr. Tattersall has some interesting ideas and keeps them concise.
The bad news:
His language is alittle high-brow for me.Read more