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.
In the earlier work, the author painted human evolution with a broad brush. Rewinding the tape, he delivers a history of the evidence itself (until recently, the majority of the evidence consisted of bones) and how paleoanthropologists interpreted it—mostly according to received wisdom, a terrible technique long discarded by other sciences. Examining early Neanderthal bones, those who believed these represented something new were drowned out by those who didn’t: most famously, a leading pathologist who insisted that this was a modern man with a skeleton distorted by rickets, arthritis, and a lifetime of horseback riding—the Rickety Cossack of the title. Proceeding forward, Tattersall mixes biographies, anecdotes (many about himself), discoveries, and fierce controversies as researchers tried to shoehorn each new finding into the currently fashionable theory of human evolution. “Nineteenth century scientists preferred to see a good Darwinian progression from apelike ancestor to modern human,” writes the author. Their 20th-century descendants were slow to accept that evolution in all nonhuman life is less a linear trudge to perfection than a messy bush that produces a diversity of species. Readers will share Tattersall’s pleasure at the changes he witnessed on entering the profession in the 1970s, when cladistics (a biological classification system), molecular genetics, and DNA analysis delivered an avalanche of fresh information, a new view of our relation to other species, living and extinct, and plenty of controversies.
An opinionated, authoritative, and delightfully provocative account of efforts to make sense of human fossil discoveries.