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1 November 2008 A Long and Forking Road
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Take a philosopher of science with a long-standing interest in human evolution, team him up with an eminent geneticist and evolutionary biologist, and you might legitimately expect that the resulting textbook would be a little bit different from the typical offering in paleoanthropology, a science that is unusually and frustratingly hidebound. Indeed, you might even pick up such a book anticipating a refreshing new perspective on the traditional story of human evolution—but you may find your hopes dashed if that book happens to be Camilo J. Cela-Conde and Francisco J. Ayala's Human Evolution: Trails from the Past, a translated work that updates and enlarges upon their Senderos de la Evolución Humana, first published in Spanish in 2001. On the other hand, if your expectation of these authors had been simply that they would do a thorough and professional job of reviewing the paleoanthropological literature, and present that review clearly and literately, you would find yourself well satisfied. Cela-Conde and Ayala have produced a remarkably comprehensive overviewof the hominid fossil and artifactual records, and their presentation contains more than a perfunctory nod to history—something that is crucial in this particular arena, since most current interpretations of our fossil past are comprehensible only as modifications of earlier views.

The volume opens with an oddly truncated chapter titled, “Evolution, Genetics, and Systematics.” The authors' brisk review of evolutionary concepts essentially ends with the establishment of the evolutionary synthesis circa 1950: the short section on “the second half of the twentieth century” dives straight into the molecules, with nary a nod to punctuated equilibria, hierarchy theory, and all that stemmed therefrom. This omission alerts the reader to the fact that process will get generally short shrift as the book proceeds. But this is not the case with pattern. Cela-Conde and Ayala are scrupulous in paying due attention to the basics of species, systematics, and cladistics, and provide as useful a short review of these areas as can be found anywhere. Nonetheless, even though there is much that is forward-looking in this discussion, there are also nostalgic elements, as in the authors' enthusiasm for Ernst Mayr's “adaptive” concept of the genus.

From this point on we are in the midst of the hominid fossil record, pausing only for a quick consideration of humanity's place among the living primates. The opening survey of primate evolution is simultaneously compact and comprehensive. Due consideration is given to a whole variety of viewpoints, and numerous text boxes provide lively vignettes dealing both with historical interpretation and with current controversies. The same applies to the remainder of the book, in which individual chapters deal with the earliest hominins (the authors seem to equate these with the tribe Hominini) and the origins of bipedal locomotion; with the South and East African australopiths, plus Homo habilis; with other “early Homo” and the East African “robusts,” plus Kenyanthropus; with the subsequent radiation of Homo species and their spread around the world (opting for a “Homo erectus grade” as the most useful device for avoiding awkward systematic choices); with the “evolutionary characteristics” of the “erectus grade,” including consideration of the archaeological record and of the earliest émigrés out of Africa; and with the “late Pleistocene transition,” where the multi-regional hypothesis is broached and never quite dispatched, tough choices are once more avoided (this time by resorting to the “archaic Homo sapiens” concept), and there appears one of the best summaries available of the molecular evidence bearing on modern human origins and distinctiveness.

A final chapter on “the uniqueness of being human” considers cultural evidence for human cognition during the later Paleolithic. Again, the discussion is detailed and ecumenical, ranging eventually into questions of primate communication, of language, and even, very trendily, of moral sense. This is indeed where the philosophical and genetics backgrounds of the authors interact most profitably, and no matter where you may stand on the matter of whether moral codes are the specific product of a process of “cultural evolution,” you will find this discussion a stimulating one.

Partly because of the sheer amount of ground it covers, everyone will find a trove of details to quibble with in Human Evolution. Still, that does not detract from the great strength of the book as a teaching (and learning) resource, which lies in its almost journalistic striving to represent or at least to reference all points of view, not to mention all major fossils. And while it is a bit frustrating not to have the slightest idea about where the authors might come down on most issues, the meticulous attention their book pays to the literature makes Human Evolution: Trails From the Past useful not only as a text (in both advanced undergraduate and graduate classes) but also as a starting point for classroom discussion—no matter what the teacher's personal perspective may be on the issue at hand.

So while I am personally a little disappointed not to find more attitude between its covers, many will find that absence a positive, or at least a helpful, attribute. What's more, while the authors make few concessions to readers, they never write down to them, making the book, for the most part, a pleasure to read. The illustrations are numerous, varied, and well chosen, if a little small and on occasion muddy; and the English version is bang up to date. Price apart, this book is an attractive selection as a primary text in any human evolution course—whatever your own shade of opinion.

Ian Tattersall "A Long and Forking Road," BioScience 58(10), 989-990, (1 November 2008).
Published: 1 November 2008

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