Review: Human Evolution ; an Illustrated Introduction by Roger Lewin (2004) Assessment 6 out of 10

Climbing down a cliff, I broke my ankle. In the resulting period of enforced idleness, I signed up for an online course, for which this was the recommended text.

It is a relatively big (21×27.5 cms), but short book of 252 pages, plus a glossary and index. Closely printed in two columns, there are numerous helpful diagrams, maps and illustrations. A comprehensive read, it renewed my (outdated) scientific education.

The history of paleoanthropology is described, how theory changed in the light of discoveries and developing scientific ideas. Changing ecological niches, the product of plate movement creating the Great African Rift Valley, is linked to the appearance of early hominids. The general pattern of extinction followed by speciation is adapted to human evolution. The simple pattern of a single evolutionary ladder with “missing links” explaining the gaps is challenged by a more complex model of speciation, migration and extinction of multiple hominid groups. Dating of finds has extended further into the past, beyond the capacity of radio carbon,by fission tracking, thermos-luminescence and electron spin resonance. However these new techniques are not adaptable to all sites. Social complexity facilitating increasing intelligence is stressed. This explains the interest in observing social interaction in primates, living metaphors for extinct hominids. Genetic evidence has become key. It supports two separate migrations out of Africa of Homo Erectus and modern man over multiregional evolution from H.  Erectus to modern man, maintaining regionally distinct features.

I have three criticisms.

First as a recommended text it has both advantages and disadvantages. There are 24 chapters called units. Why? Each ends with references and four key questions. I found answering them challenging.  Some are questions of comprehension, others lead onto further chapters (sorry, units) or try to put the particular chapter into the context of the overall discussion. There is no final summary or conclusion.

Second it needs to be updated. This is the fifth and latest edition, published in 2005, with previous editions published in 1984, 1989, 1993 and 1999. So the speed of producing a new edition has slowed. However this has been at a time of accelerating developments. There is no mention of the discovery of H. Floresiensis, known as the “hobbit”, or the evidence for H. Sapiens and Neanderthal interbreeding. Successive and in part competing theories, Man the Hunter, Scavenger, Social Animal and Tool Maker are explained, but the recent Man the Cook theory, which I find at least equally persuasive, is not.

Third as a somewhat outdated, but recommended, course text it is too expensive. The headline price on Amazon is £49.50. I was lucky enough to acquire a very good second hand copy for £11.66 plus postage.

So a cheaper up to date edition should be produced. All that said, it is a clear and comprehensive introductory text encouraging more specialist further study.

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