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Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness 1st Edition

3.5 out of 5 stars 25 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0156006538
ISBN-10: 0156006537
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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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Product Details

  • Series: Harvest Book
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Harvest Books; 1 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: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #398,515 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I enjoyed this book very much, not being a professional anthropologist. I understand the criticism that it may be elementary it its approach; however, there is an audience of intelligent people who need to be introduced to the subject in this way. I have been seeking such a work on human origins for several years. Many of them start well but soon soar into the stratosphere of technical overkill and lose me. For those who have a professional's understanding of the field, I am sure you can locate more in depth resources. For the rest of us, I highly reccomend this book. It is an up to date summary and a pretty good yarn as well.
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Format: Paperback
Coming from a man with Tattersall's qualifications, this book springs real surprises on the reader. Viewing the human evolutionary process in reverse, he begins with Paleolithic age art and retains a strongly European oriented view thoughout the book. Presented an image of "superior" European founders of our cultural heritage, it's almost impossible to shed the WASP image he conjures in the reader. While it's convenient to replace "Homo sapiens" with the [hopefully] less cumbersome "Cro-Magnon", Tattersall leaves us in no doubt that either label remains limited to the European scene.
Confirming this narrow view in the first chapter, 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. Conceding Australian Aborigine art as "curious", he fails to note it predates his beloved French gallery by ten millennia. Coming from a Curator of Anthropology, it's an astonishing submission.
Broadening our view, readers are cautioned to spend time on Chapter 3, "Evolution for What?" A review of various renderings of Darwin's evolution by natural selection, the aim of the chapter is to disabuse readers of the idea that evolution has a purpose. However, there's a subtle agenda. Not hidden, subtle. He gives us the background of Darwin's thinking in developing the thesis, following that with 20th Century investigators possessing the tools of genetics. Assembling scholars from the mid-twentieth century, he builds what he labels the "Evolutionary Synthesis" which generally supported the idea of gradual change in species.
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Format: Hardcover
Many books on human evolution cite authority after authority and end up confusing the reader without developing a consistent point of view. Not this one. The author has clear and consistent view of the human past -- and future -- and articulates it in lively language. From his considerations of the differences that separate Homo sapiens from their nearest living relatives, the apes, to his account of how those differences were acquired, this is the most thoughtful treatment of the subject yet available. This book is for everyone who takes an interest in how humans got to be the way they are.
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Format: Paperback
Tattersall gives us primitive social history; a bounded evolutionary history; and a most surprising - though distressing - anatomical history of these expensive organs we carry about in our skulls. Expensive because they consume over 20% of our calories whether we use them or not. Given the state of civilization and politics it may be no surprise we burn hardly more calories when thinking than asleep.

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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If I'd read this book 15 years ago I'd rated it 5 for content (it won the prestigious W.W. Howells Prize of the American Anthropological Association when published) but overall I'd rated it a 4 because of its literary quality. Now I rated it a 3 because it badly needs updating. I would still recommend reading it, but with the qualifications of my last section.

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.

Literary Quality
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.
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