Book Review: Ancestors: In Search Of Human Origins

Ancestors:  In Search Of Human Origins, by Donald Johanson, Lenora Johanson, and Blake Edgar

This book is the companion volume to a Nova series that must have ran a decade or two ago that I didn’t watch and am unlikely to watch.  Nonetheless, despite my well-known views on the evolutionary perspective that this book has [1], I found much about this book to appreciate.  In particular, I found this book to be a triumph of human imagination.  In spite of his evident desire to do otherwise, the author manages to make a far better case for design than for evolution, not least because this book features so much speculation from small amounts of highly ambiguous evidence in the ground.  Even when someone is trying to deny that they are a created being, their own innate creativity gives the lie to their claims that the world developed without purpose and planning and creativity, not least because the more the evidence is thin, the more there is evidence of continual creating of massive (and fallacious) theories about human prehistory from the tiniest scraps of bones and material culture that can be found throughout the world.  One does not know whether to pity the authors or to celebrate their unintentional imitatio dei.

This book of about 300 pages or so is divided into eight chapters.  The first chapters inserts the author(s) into the story by looking at the return to Hadar after a period of considerable political unrest in Ethiopia.  After this the author start going through a list of species that they think of as being in the larger human family one by one.  There is Australopithecus afarensis, the species of “Lucy,” which is posited to be the ape that stood up on its hind legs.  After this there is a discussion of Homo habilis and the debate over whether this species was a mighty hunter or a wily scavenger.  A slight detour to discuss the nutcracker “people” of Australopithecus robustus shows a dead end that ought to warn people who are too inclined to find a narrow niche and are not adaptable enough in the face of changing conditions.  After this the author looks at Homo erectus and the development of big brains.  A discussion of “archaic” Homo sapiens includes an explicit search for Eden either out of Africa or via a multiregional hypothesis.  The last two chapters then conclude with a look at Homo neanderthalensis and the engima it presents as well as a brief look at the human revolution with “modern” Homo sapiens.

Reading a book like this for its factual value is nearly useless.  Aside from the fact that the ratio of interpretation to fact is immense when so few fossils are found and when human imagination is so fecund (the second factor being more decisive here), hardly a year goes by when someone does not try to earn their reputation as a paleontologist by either finding some kind of bones or artifacts that disrupt the theory de jour or that inflict a serious reinterpretation of the evidence that exists.  The author himself does a fair amount of attempting to debunk certain theories, unaware of course that his own theories are likely to be debunked and that the whole edifice of his field is based on some pretty shaky empirical grounds where more charity and less ferocity would be better for everyone involved.  This is a good book if you like to read imaginative myths of human prehistory.  If you expect to find factuality here, you are barking up the wrong tree, because this book is likely to be several rounds obsolete by the time anyone gets around to reading it now.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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