Books by Ian Tattersall

Released: April 3, 2019

"A concise and useful book of evolutionary science."
A lively addition to the literature on the "unfathomable mystery" of human beings. Read full book review >
Released: June 9, 2015

"An opinionated, authoritative, and delightfully provocative account of efforts to make sense of human fossil discoveries."
Despite his 2012 history of Homo sapiens, Masters of the Planet, Tattersall, curator emeritus in the anthropology division of the American Museum of Natural History, revisits the subject from another angle, with equally superb results.Read full book review >
Released: March 27, 2012

"Keeping a critical eye on the evidence and a skeptical one on theories, Tattersall confirms his status among world anthropologists by delivering a superior popular explanation of human origins."
A veteran anthropologist writes a superb overview of how our species developed (a long process) and how we grew smart enough to dominate the planet (a short process in which evolution played little part). Read full book review >
Released: Nov. 1, 2001

"There are plenty of strong personal opinions here (Neanderthals were a dead-end species; human evolution has stalled for the foreseeable future), but they ring true. The whole production is as absorbing and literate as one would expect from Tattersall."
A collection of eight original essays that make up a primer on evolution. Read full book review >
Released: March 23, 1998

The latest entry into the who-are-we-and- where-did-we-come-from debate is from Tattersall (The Fossil Trail, 1995, etc.), the highly regarded fossil expert and curator of the department of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mincing no words and keeping the pot of controversy ready to boil over, Tattersall asserts that there is no question that the Neanderthals came to a dead end without heirs. While they coexisted 40,000 years ago with Cro-Magnons, it was the latter who replaced them and are our ancestors. Among his reasons for this assertion are the elegant artworks found in Cro-Magnon cave sites, bespeaking symbolic reasoning; a tool kit that demonstrates a quantum leap in abstract thinking and planning; and the anatomical arrangements that afford speech and therefore languageall absent from Neanderthal remains. However, in his review of the primate and hominid literature, he chooses not to make invidious comparisons (Neanderthals are not ``dumb'' humans) so much as to say that the various species ``played by different sets of rules.'' Human evolution, he says, echoing colleagues Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould, is no linear ascent, but an episodic affair with assorted species coexisting (but presumably not interbreeding) until the emergence of the H. sapiens. We are the end-products of unpredictable climate change, habitual upright posture (which freed our hands), brain growth, and the capacity for speech. But finally we are left with the not very hopeful picture of humanity dominating the globe. Further, we might be end products in another sense: We are so populous that there are no longer the pockets of isolated populations that allow mutations to develop into new species. Tattersall concludes that ``we are stuck with our old familiarand potentially dangerousserves, and we urgently need to learn how best to live with that fact''so that, we might add, we can continue such learned arguments on human origins to the next round. Read full book review >
Released: Feb. 1, 1995

A refreshing appraisal of the state of the science of human origins. Tattersall heads the anthropology department at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. His review takes off from Darwin and the dawn of modern geology, tracks the major sites and discoverers, and ends with current controversies and his personal reading of the record. The lesson that comes through loud and often is how much personal bias and prevailing paradigms have colored interpretation. Examples: The Victorian notion that evolution is ``directed,'' moving onward and upward, and the more recent idea that humans represent the end product of a single lineage of ancestors and a gradually changing species. Then there were the hoaxes to contend with, and controversies about whether the races evolved independently or derived from a common root. Into this morass came the burst of recent fossil discoveries, the mapping of diversity via DNA, and new dating methods. The conclusion that Tattersall reaches is that we ought to view modern humans as a surviving species with varying degrees of biological closeness with other Homo species. These in turn descended from several different genera, starting about four million years ago with the bipedal Australopithecus afarensis in Africa. As he spins his tale he makes the point that physical changes do not match advances in technological skills, but that in due course there were obvious changes in behavior that mark abstract thought and language. His epilogue carries the grim message that we cannot expect evolution to come riding in to rescue the future: ``We shall have to learn to live with ourselves as we are. Fast.'' Wise words from a highly qualified observer of humanity past and present. Read full book review >