Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness

Ian Tattersall, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $27 (272p) ISBN 978-0-15-100340-2
What defining characteristic, if any, separates us from the rest of creation? Many books on human evolution (from Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man to Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct and beyond) have sought the holy grail of a defining characteristic for the species. Here, Tattersall (The Last Neanderthal, etc.), curator in the Department of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, takes us through the gradual development, over millions of years and countless refinements, of Homo sapiens, often consulting the fossil record for corroboration of the innovations he takes to be significant. Tattersall makes it perfectly clear that he doubts studies suggesting that chimpanzees, using American Sign Language, can communicate with humans to any meaningful degree--thus preserving verbal language as a candidate. He presents himself throughout as a man of strongly held opinions, confident that the ""out of Africa"" model of human evolution is far superior to the ""multi-regional"" hypothesis, that Neanderthals could not speak as we do and that ""punctuated equilibrium"" (the theory that isolated genetic innovation is followed by a spread throughout a population) should become the new evolutionary paradigm. The evidence presented for such beliefs, however, is rarely gone into in enough detail for readers' scales to balance on their own. Ultimately, and unsurprisingly, Tattersall considers symbolic thought (as ""epitomized by our linguistic abilities"") as the best candidate for the attribute that sets us apart from other species. Although Tattersall provides some moving descriptions of early cave art and other human endeavors, he is less successful at producing a volume that stands out in a crowded field. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 03/02/1998
Release date: 03/01/1998
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 272 pages - 978-0-15-600653-8
Paperback - 272 pages - 978-0-19-286214-3
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