Brett Williams's Reviews > Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness

Becoming Human by Ian Tattersall
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The beautiful and the ugly about human animals

Tattersall gives us primitive social history; a bounded evolutionary history; and a most surprising – though distressing – anatomical history of these expensive organs we carry about in our skulls. Expensive because they consume over 20% of our calories whether we use them or not. Given the state of civilization and politics it may be no surprise we burn hardly more calories when thinking than asleep.

The goal here is to find why humans are different. Chimps make tools, dolphins have the largest brain-to-body-mass ratio of any species on earth, Neanderthal ceremonially buried their dead, gorillas can be taught sign language, baboons engage in deception as they attribute states of mind to others to predict their behavior. Jane Goodall even witnessed bands of chimps make coordinated war on each other not so unlike the way humans did in earnest once accumulations from the agriculture revolution gave us something serious to kill for. But others have not painted cave walls in southwest Europe (30000ya), wrote sonnets or split atoms. As far as we know, claims Tattersall, a dramatic difference is rule based, abstract language. Arbitrary sounds associated to objects (the sound “house” only means “house” to those who speak English) or more intangibly, to symbolic references – mathematics, metaphysics, democracy. The order of these arbitrary sounds convey their own meaning. “Man paints house.” “House paints man.” Hence the rules – grammar – such that listeners using the same code understand correctly the intended message. Without the rules and vocabulary, a foreign tongue - if you’ve ever heard one - sounds like one continuous modulated word.

Throughout the book we wonder if we are really better off now than in the harsh, survivalist past. Through success in controlling the environment, our ancestors could have never imagined to what ends we would carry this emergent property of stellar byproducts structured in the form of brains. This control also allowed for an art explosion – according to Tattersall an element of existence central to ancient man. While the system we moderns created makes art alien and impractical – or worse, creates “modern art” – the past allowed our ancestors to explore this innately human characteristic. Gould’s punctuated equilibrium seems to apply here to human innovation as readily as it does to speciation – periods of abrupt development followed by periods of stasis.

Of utmost importance is Tattersall’s note on climate’s affect on the human trajectory. The coordination of climate change and human creative behavior may seem obvious (stated again some years later in Spencer Wells', Pandora's Seed) – e.g. if it’s suddenly colder, invent a coat. But we find, for example, that cave painting peaked with the last glacial maxima. Did selective pressures, including the loss of once available prey animals, expand the perception of art as magic over animals imaged? That is, did a natural ice age select for accelerating abstractions such as religion - the calling of powers to calm a changing world? (Given Neanderthal burials, the ice age was far from the first such hypothetical natural selection of behaviors.) Interestingly these paintings are composed of fewer large predators over time. Were the painters simply reporting the numbers – eliminated by climate change or human success in the competition game?

An excellent section on brain anatomy clarifies our biggest problem. The combination of onion-like layering and expansion of existent features to make up those layers, resulting in the untidy evolution of our brains built over early versions all the way back to common mammal, even reptilian-like ancestors. The sad news is that structure implies behavior. Our higher thought centers are mediated by sections in charge of our lowest functions – feeding, fighting, fleeing, sex. Is this why males so frequently compromise themselves for females against better judgments, rationalizing irrational acts, only to suffer their actions after hormones fade? Males of many species die in that contest. That fabulous machine in our skulls is also a mess and far from an ideal design. It makes us warlike, yet compassionate, lawyers, yet artists. We’re stuck with it and as Tattersall tells it, this, contrary to modern historians, is why history repeats itself.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
April 15, 2014 – Shelved

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