Planet of the apes

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Evolving: The Human Effect and Why it Matters, by Daniel J Fairbanks, Prometheus Books, RRP£16.99/$19, 352 pages

Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins, by Ian Tattersall, Palgrave Macmillan, RRP£16.99/$26, 288 pages

Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature, by David P Barash, OUP, RRP£18.99/$27.95, 384 pages

Once upon a time, there was an ape that stood up. Why it stood up nobody knows, but once upright it found it could use its hands to fashion tools from sticks and stones. So it stayed standing up. And once it decided to stay standing up, its brain started to grow. Why its brain started to grow nobody knows, but with a bigger brain the ape, which was by now an ape-man, could make better tools and even speak. Why it started to speak nobody knows. And by then it wasn’t an ape-man any more, but a human. And those humans with the most developed brains – Homo sapiens – used their cunning to spread throughout the world. All the many other kinds of human and ape-man died. Why they died nobody knows.

When the Homo sapiens were lords of all, some of them became curious about where they had come from. Having a poor collective memory, they at first thought the world had simply been handed to them by a god who happened to look just like they did. But a few began using their inflated brains to try to piece together a story about how it had all begun with an ape that had once stood up. And three of them even wrote new books on the subject.

There remains something about the evolutionary account of our origins that sounds a little like a just-so story. Until a century and a half ago it would have been regarded by the most educated person as just that – a witty tale in slightly poor taste; science fiction perhaps, but not science. This incredulity lingers: although now firmly established in the minds of most Europeans, evolutionary theory remains highly contentious worldwide. Notoriously, this includes in the US. According to a Gallup poll conducted this year, nearly half of Americans believe we humans were created by God just as we are today, whereas a further third believe in a process of “intelligent design” guided by a divine hand. Only 15 per cent accept that we evolved unaided from some surprisingly upright apes.

Written By: Stephen Cave
continue to source article at ft.com

8 COMMENTS

  1. The author of the article seems to shy away from the scientific statement that homo sapiens is simply another species of ape-just with less hair and an upright posture. By avoiding this he indirectly suggests that humans are more removed from our biological family than is actually the case.

    I also remember a hypothesis that human females are not flat chested like other apes as a fuller figure made the front of the torso resemble the buttock region which is the most alluring part of the female form to males in all other ape species (so presumably our ancestors too). Females who were more attractive attracted fitter, higher status males so the genes for this would have been passed on. Bipedalism made the front part of the chest more visible so that is why it occured in our species and not with other apes.

  2.  Actually a decently written review, although most scientific books about evolution generally cover the same themes, often with the same attitude.  At least this author appears to be scientifically literate (a considerable advantage over most of the churnalism we can see today)

  3. Interestingly, humans are the only ape whose second greatest expenditure of time, effort and wealth is on devising, improving and using tools to kill each other (trust me, as an occasional hunter you do not need nuclear weapons, fuel air bombs or missiles (nuclear or otherwise) to kill game for food).

    Our only greater expenditure of time, energy and wealth is on religion, a power and control mechanism that was invented to enable the few to have absolute control over the many.

    In neither of these cases was evolution or our genes involved. They are nurture, not nature. Taught and learnt rather than instinctual and very closely related. After all, the best, most efficient wins so the best weapons to kill our fellow humans ensures our elite rules everything.

    Still crazy after all these years.

  4. The fact that such a small percentage of Americans accept evolution as fact indicates that teachers of
    science must be under some kind of threat.
    Darwin’s studies revealed what is now(as a result of overwhelming evidence) the fact of evolution.
    And yet still American pupils in school seem unaware and only learn about evolution if they take up
    studies involving biology at University.
    One can thoroughly sympathise with people like PZ Myers who are confronted daily with nonsensical
    creationist crap.

  5. I have both Fairbanks’ book and Tattersall’s. I haven’t read Tattersall’s yet, but I read Fairbanks’ book and it is excellent. His first book, “Relics of Eden” is by far the best book on the evidence of human evolution from DNA that I have ever come across. It is packed with evidence that I have seen nowhere else. “Evolving” contains a lot of the same DNA evidence from “Relics of Eden”, plus some new DNA evidence that has come out since the first book was published. It also covers evidence from anatomy, fossils, etc. 

    While the in-depth focus on evidence from human evolution from DNA made “Relics of Eden” pretty unique (or at least unique to me), what I found rather unique about “Evolving” was the chapters about why understanding evolution matters. There are chapters on agriculture, disease, medicine, etc, that are really fascinating. 

    I think that both of Fairbanks’ books are totally underrated. His first book seemed to have done pretty well, but his new book wasn’t even ranked among the top 20 books on evolution, if I remember correctly, when it first came out. I haven’t seen any interviews with Fairbanks on the book, so I don’t think he’s really gone out and promoted the book that well.

    I can’t imagine how anyone could read either of his books and still deny evolution.

  6. There is a distinction between what people believe and what they claim to believe.  A classic example would be difference in responses when an occupation soldier asks “do you approve of the occupation” and when a resistance fighter asks the exact same question. I have have taken scores of telephone interviews, and usually it is obvious to me what answer the questioner wants. I am more than normally willing to tell people what I believe when I know they won’t like it. To find out this information from normal people, I think you have to be more indirect than just asking. You might ask the name of the local pastor, what the topic of most recent sermon was, which of the hymns they sang last Sunday was most appealing.  It should be easier to catch fabrications.

  7. I have two entirely speculative suggestions:

    1)  Why females have protruding breasts -  Could it be that this was a trait perceived by early hominids, as a sign of an ability to feed prospective offspring. You may well ask why that not all women today are such endowed and some are flat-chested. Perhaps even though the prominent males may have got all the large breasted females, the general population males still managed to find ‘flatter’ mates who were not desired by the hierarchy and still re-produced keeping the ‘flat’ genes somewhat persistent in the population? So basically sexual selection at work here.

    2) Why did hominids began to walk upright? – Perhaps becoming bipedal gave a population of pre-hominid apes the advantage of being able to collect food and supplies (tools/sharp rocks/sticks, materials for shelter) and bring it back further distances to a safer place (cave?) for storage and later use. This would have saved them from having to eat their food where they found it and thus leaving themselves open to a risk of predatory attack. Maybe there was a natural de-forestation of the region that may have caused a usually arborial habitat to be decimated to the point where these apes were left with huge open tree-less savannahs with little shelter or safe escape, and the ability to climb trees became of less use and selected against.

    These are both just my suggestions based on my layman’s understanding but I would be interested to hear from someone more learned than I if these are at least plausible scenarios or what the evidence may suggest.

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