• Book Review – The Accidental Species

    I recently learned of this book (published Oct 15th of this year) through the National Center for Science Education. I contacted them and they put me in touch with the University of Chicago press and a day later I had a review copy of the book on my desktop.

    The book is by Dr. Henry Gee.  He is a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist and a senior editor at Nature.  I honestly don’t know that much more about him.  That being said, I took exception to an article he published.  I didn’t know he was a senior editor of Nature.  I still don’t much care.  I think he made some mistakes in that article.

    The reason I say this is because I don’t want anyone to think that this a glowing review because of who Dr. Gee is or his job or because I got a free book.

    The book is The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution.  It’s not a long book, only 203 pages and the last 30 are the end notes, bibliography, and index.  Which brings me to a huge, major whine.  I don’t like end notes. In electronic editions of books, provided that they are properly hyperlinked, it’s not that big a deal.  But in PDFs or paper books, end notes are a pain in the ass.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I read them.  I look at them.  I want to know what kind of reference a claim is referring to.  Comparing this book and Darwin’s Doubt, because they both use end notes (and I mean notes at the end of the book, not the end of a chapter), I can’t help but get the impression the author is hiding something. I know that’s not the case.  It may be publisher preference or author preference or just what the author was taught.  Regardless, I don’t like them.

    I want footnotes.  I want them at the bottom of the page. I’d prefer to have reference hyperlinked to the page where I can download them directly to Read Cube.  And while I’m wishing… I want a pony.

    Anyway, back to the book.

    It’s a good book.  The writing is very clear.  Gee includes numerous anecdotes and asides that are both humorous and still pointed. The writing style reminds me of a refined version of my own, very conversational.

    Be warned though. An expert, even a casual student of human evolution won’t be impressed with the level of detail.  It’s not really that kind of book. This is really for a beginner to evolution and human history.  And it was perfect for me, I’m not one who studies human evolution much at all.  I think it comes from a general hatred of primates.

    Chapter 2 “All About Evolution” is just that, an introduction to evolution and the evidence.  It’s not very technical, but easy to follow.  I’d be happy using it as a lecture guide in an intro to biology course.

    Many popular science books follow a common pattern.  The first few chapters talk about the history of the concept.  The middle section (usually the largest) talks about the current state of the concept.  The last few chapters are for the author to speculate or discuss possible future research.  One of my favorite science books The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry does this very well.  The history of genetic history, the current research, then the author talks about these “seven daughters” from whom it appears that every living human has descended from.  That last bit is informed speculation.  The climate and locals are well known, but the actions and behaviors of the people are pure fancy.  Well written fancy, but fancy none the less.

    The Accidental Species is somewhat like that.  It’s going to take me a bit to explain because it took me quite a while to appreciate this book.  The first chapters are a mix of history and current science.  Gee does an excellent job of teasing out the reliable claims from the unreliable claims regarding everything from evolution to behavior.

    The ending chapters of the book are, upon first impression, somewhat fanciful.  While reading them, I was almost annoyed (the fact that I could glance down to see the references was really annoying).  They seem fanciful.  Gee spends several pages making up a story about the evolution of bipedalism.  He freely admits that this isn’t The Cause of bipedalism, but to a purist like myself, it’s somewhat annoying.

    And, I’m not unwilling to admit, that by this point I wanted to find things that I didn’t like about the book.  The first chapters were so well done and suddenly there’s these stories.

    But when I finished the book.  I sat and thought about it for a good long time.  Then I realized something.  The title of the book is not an accident.  It’s not a cutesy title to draw attention.  The title “The accidental species” is the central theme of this entire book.  Everything about it is focused on the fact that it’s nearly pure chance that Homo sapiens.

    Scientists may not like to talk about it and creationists make like to use is it as a red herring, but this book is full of evidence that humans are not special.  We aren’t that unique, even in terms of brain power (tool use and sentience).  Language isn’t unique to humans.  Nor is how we think, with our ability to consider others and how they view actions.

    This book contains a lot of discussion on contingency.  That is, in science, a technical term for luck.  I may not like it, but there’s supporting evidence and it’s something that bears thinking about.  Another book I read and enjoyed (though it is significantly more technical) is called The Emergence of Life: From Chemical Origins to Synthetic Biology. The author of that book also talks a lot about contingency and how it played a role in the formation of life on the planet.

    Throughout our history, we were one volcanic explosion away from extinction.  Some years ago there was a great deal of excitement over the discovery of the so-called “Hobbits”, Homo floresiensis. It appears that a volcano wiped them out.  Since it had survived almost to present (12,000-13,000 years ago), it’s not impossible that had there not been a volcano, they would still exist.

    Dr. Gee ends with the book very, very suddenly.  I was shocked that he just stopped. He even mentions it in the afterword.

    Several people who read excerpts of the draft of this book have, understandably, been distressed that I should walk away from this extended dustup without leaving even one tiny crumb of comfort.

    And it’s true.  If you read this book and really think about it, you should come away slightly depressed.  It’s not a lighthearted, but trope laden romantic comedy.  It’s reality.  And reality is not all that friendly to humans… or any species for that matter.  Well over 99% of every species that has ever existed is extinct. We’re not special.  Homo sapiens has only been around for an eye-blink compared to others.  Even hominids as a group haven’t been round all that long, barely 20 million years.

    Even myself, an ardent skeptic, is saddened by the reality that humans are not special.  It’s a telling statement about the built in biases that we all have.

    In short, this book is going to make you think.  It should, whether you want to think about it or not. I am still not sure if I can stand up in a room full of creationists and say, “Yep, that’s right, we’re nothing more than an accident.”  But I might be able to do that soon.

    Finally, I’d like to thank Dr. Gee for my new favorite line about creationists (and for him specifically stating that creationists have taken him out of context and missed the point of his previous books).

    That said, I refuse to modify my thoughts for fear of being quote- mined by idiots. I tend to regard creationists as an occupational hazard, rather in the same way that those who go walking in the dark, looking up at the stars, will occasionally tread in a pile of dog shit.

    In short, I encourage you to read the book.  It’s not long, it’s not technical, but it will make you think.  It’s a good read.

    Category: Book ReviewfeaturedPaleontologyScience


    Article by: Smilodon's Retreat

    • azportsider

      This looks like (yet) another necessary addition to my must read list, Smilodon. Anyone who can write that last sentence deserves a read. Besides, I’m not trained in physical anthropology, and you make it seem like a good book for us laypersons.

      • SmilodonsRetreat

        It is quite good. I never studied human evolution, so I’m right there with you as a layperson.

        For example, I wasn’t aware that there were at least (very likely) four Homo species alive at the same time.

    • aquape

      Gee’s book “Misunderstandings of human evolution” shows indeed a few profound misunderstandings of human evolution.
      The traditional idea that human ancestors in Africa went from the forests to the plains (e.g. the “savanna hypothesis”) rests on a logical error (called “post hoc, ergo propter hoc”) that confuses “because” and “since”: since non-human primates in the trees are quadrupedal, and humans on the ground are bipedal, we became bipedal when we left the forests, it is thought. Some paleo-anthropologists correctly realize that this cannot be the whole truth (e.g. savanna monkeys are less bipedal than forest monkeys – the so-called “baboon paradox”) and believe that our ancestors already “stood up” in the branches, possibly not unlike gibbons, who walk bipedally over branches and hang vertically from branches.
      But traditional paleo-anthropologists, including Gee, consider only the possibilities of living in the branches and/or on the ground, neglecting the possibility that hominoids could have spent part of their time in rivers or coastal waters (compare the so-called “aquatic ape hypothesis”, unfortunatly incorrectly named: it is not about apes or australopiths, but about waterside Pleistocene Homo).
      The different elements of human locomotion did not evolve at once, but arose mosaic-like: early hominoids such as Morotopithecus ~20 Ma were already “vertical” (orthograde), gibbons; humans still have vertical spines most of the time; and most Mio-Pliocene hominoids were generally “upright”, not necessarily for walking or running on terra firma, but rather for climbing vertically in the branches above the forest swamps (where most Mio-Pliocene hominoid fossils lay) or for wading on two legs like lowland gorillas still do in the forest bais (where they collect floating and waterside vegetation).
      The evolution of human locomotion – wading and/or walking on two legs (“bipedality”), an upright posture with vertical lumbar spine (“orthogrady”), an “aligned” build (head-spine-legs in 1 line), and very long and straight legs, which are four different things – is more Darwinian than Gee thinks. Fossil, paleo-environmental, archeological, isotopic, and comparative data independently converge to show that Pleistocene human ancestors did not run over the open plains as many traditional anthropologists claim (e.g. the “endurance running” fantasy: a just-so, cherry-picking “explanation in hindsight”). The malacological data show that virtually all archaic Homo fossils and tools were associated with shallow water habitats and edible shellfish (Munro 2010 “Molluscs as ecological indicators in palaeoanthropoloigcal contexts” PhD thesis Canberra), and sites as far apart as England (e.g. Happisburgh, Boxgrove), Indonesia (e.g. Mojokerto, Flores) and southern Africa (e.g. Dungo V, the Cape) lay in coastal and estuarian sediments. Apparently, early Pleistocene Homo populations during the Ice Ages, instead of running over dry open plains, simply followed the coasts and rivers when they dispersed intercontinentally (sometimes even in savannas :-D), collecting waterside and shallow water foods.
      In a comparable way, Gee does not understand e.g. the evolution of human speech.
      Apparently he forgot to read our papers (in Hum.Evol., Nature, New Scientist, Nutr.Health, HOMO, TREE etc.), some of which can be found at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Marc_Verhaegen
      –marc verhaegen