The paradox of the Internet is that it increases one’s appreciation for holding and reading a well-written book printed on fine paper. Such is the case with “Extinct Humans,” by Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey Schwartz.
The soft cover does not detract from the pleasure of touching the glossy paper and gazing on the astounding illustrations of this remarkable book. The text is writerly, at once simple enough for people unacquainted with the cascading knowledge of human evolution in recent years, and dense enough for students of paleoanthropology to appreciate its intellectual subtleties.
The illustrations are luscious, with skulls from humans and proto-humans dead thousands or millions of years jumping off the page, pictures of such clarity and depth that they come as close to a hologram as a book can come with present technology.
Paleoanthropology, the study of ancient or early humans, is a field fraught with controversy and egos. Until quite recently, the fossil record was sparse, giving rise to hard-fought competing theories. These were over large or small differences in the human line since we diverged from our last common ancestor with the other primates, the chimpanzee, about five million years ago (itself a bone of contention).
(It’s not my intention to give credence to creationism, other than to mention the specious debate between “intelligent design” and random evolution. Arguing about the existence of evolution is like arguing about the existence of gravity. Though there are many unanswered questions about evolution, the fact is beyond rational dispute.)
I am savoring “Extinct Humans,” limiting myself to a few pages a day. Not because I relish the prospect of Homo sapiens joining the lengthening list of our newly discovered extinct ancestors, but because there is so much food for thought and cuisine for insight.
As an example of scientific brevity and punch, it doesn’t get much better than the following sentences, encapsulating the long arm of 19th century prejudice, which included adherents as illustrious as Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley:
“If you made stone tools, you were not only technologically unsophisticated, you were nothing more than a barbarian and savage…This simple dichotomy—metal tool-use equals civilized, non-metal tool use equals savage—gave justification to conquest and subjugation.”
There were two fixations in the 18th and 19th centuries—‘The Great Chain of Being’ teleology, and the pernicious idea of race. The latter gave rise to the “conquest and subjugation” of colonialism. The former pertains to a merging of Aristotle’s “Scala Naturae” with the Christian creation myth, “producing a taxonomic hierarchy of life’s forms with humans being the closest to the image of a divine creator.”
The main object that Tattersall and Schwartz have in mind in “Extinct Humans” is a refutation of the idea, rife in paleoanthropology as well as popular thought, that “human evolution is a straight line of continuous transformation of one species into the next.”
Humans are not “removed from biological evolution as it affected every other organism that ever walked the face of the earth.” Indeed, “the result may be extraordinary,” but “evolution has done nothing to prepare the biota [the animals and plants of the earth] to cope with this highly destructive new element in the landscape.”
In short, we humans have “the same kind of evolutionary history…a many-branched bush of diversity,” as all other species exhibit.
Though the authors rightly deride the idea of “a single-minded struggle from bestial benightedness to uplifted enlightenment,” the fact is that human beings have to bring about a revolution in consciousness to avoid ecological collapse. Nature, or God (however we conceive or don’t conceive her/him/it) isn’t going to intervene.
My basic premise, tentatively held, is that there has been no evolution in our species since the last breakthrough in man’s herky-jerky development from ape to human being, a cognitive advance that occurred suddenly about 100,000 years ago.
That juncture marks the point where the slow and stable evolutionary pattern that characterized human cognitive, technological, and cultural life for hundreds of thousands of years gave way to fully modern capabilities. With these newly developed cognitive capabilities, the diversity of cultures, the birth of art, and the growth of knowledge and technology began.
Clearly, evolution is not a “continuum of variability leading to present-day humans.” But there is obviously a direction to the branching bush of evolution—toward greater general complexity, and bigger and more complex brains.
Does something like the human brain represent an intrinsic intent in evolution? Is there an intrinsic intent, “involving both speciation and extinction,” to evolve brains capable of awakened consciousness and communion with the cosmic mind?
The ‘father’ of taxonomy, Carl von Linnaeus, “failed to define the genus Homo by anything more useful than a fanciful phrase–‘nosce te ipsum—know thyself.’” Even so, that ancient dictum remains the only way ahead.