BECOMING HUMAN: Evolution and Human Uniqueness by Ian Tattersall

BECOMING HUMAN: Evolution and Human Uniqueness

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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 language--all 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 (hut 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 familiar--and potentially dangerous--serves, 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.

Pub Date: March 23rd, 1998
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Harcourt Brace