Terence's Reviews > Children of the Ice Age: How a Global Catastrophe Allowed Humans to Evolve

Children of the Ice Age by Steven M. Stanley
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Nov 08, 08

bookshelves: science-anthropology, science-archeology, science-general, science-evolution
Recommended for: Students of evolutionary theory
Read in November, 2008, read count: 1

If I had read Children of the Ice Age 12 years ago when it was first published it probably would have garnered four stars. In 2008, many of the topics Steven Stanley takes up are now accepted wisdom, such as the idea that hominids arose out of australopithecine populations isolated from their native forests in east Africa by drastic climatic change. Or that the hominid lineage is more a bush than a tree, with a host of branchings and not enough fossil evidence in most cases to make more than an educated guess as to the relationships among them.

Stanley is also (at least when he wrote the book) a strong advocate of Eldredge and Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium (briefly: Evolution occurs in relatively brief spurts of intense change brought on by isolation or drastic environmental changes; species equilibrium is punctuated by evolutionary change). I gather from my reading that the theory is not universally accepted; certainly not as the sole mechanism of evolutionary change. As we are discovering, the mechanisms that direct evolution are myriad and, at the moment, unfathomably complex (but knowable - take that "intelligent" design!).

That said, this is still a well written, comprehensive account of human evolution whose ideas may no longer be "cutting edge" but have become the new standard (it's not as if you're reading an anthro textbook from 1920...). Namely:

1. The large hominid brain is the product of an abrupt geological transition that radically altered the landscape of east Africa.

2. The hominid genus is the result of a fortuitous (for us) environmental catastrophe (the Ice Age).

3. That climate change can be traced to a specific geological event (the rise of the Panama isthmus and subsequent alteration of ocean currents in Stanley's view.

4. The human species is a result of evolutionary compromises to accommodate an enormous brain and rapid neonatal development, among other problems unique to our species.

There are a couple of sections where I actually did learn something new. Stanley has a good explanation about brain evolution - why it happened and how the brain developed, and he brings up a theme that I had nevered encountered before: "The big brain of Homo came into being not because such an organ became useful for the first time but because its evolution became possible for the first time." (p. 143f.) He also has one of the clearest & most comprehensive explanation of the various hominid species that we've discovered. (p. 188f.) Finally, he posits that the emergence of Panama (which cut off the Atlantic from the Pacific and altered ocean currents) brought on the current cycle of ice ages and, ultimately, engendered humans. (p. 180f.)

Of course, Stanley can't address the wealth of new information that's developed over the last decade (particularly in relations to genetics and language) but I would still recommend it to anyone who's newly interested in the subject, and, as I discovered, even those well versed might learn something new or be asked to look at old data in a new way - never a bad thing for a book to achieve.
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