A Magisterial Synthesis Of Apes And Human Evolution (Forbes)

11/23/2014 @ 10:31AM By John Farrell

There are books to read from cover to cover in a week or two, and then there are the ones you dip into over and over again, because they aren’t books so much as encyclopedias.

Russell H. Tuttle’s Apes and Human Evolution is one of these. Like the late Stephen Jay Gould’s magisterial Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Tuttle’s tome is a grand synthesis of all the latest research and data about apes and their relation to us.

Tuttle is Professor of Anthropology, Evolutionary Biology, History of Science and Medicine and the College at the University of Chicago.

Tuttle believes that bipedalism preceded the development of the brain in early humans –and was likely something inherited from smaller apes already used to using their feet to move laterally along branches in trees. Although chimpanzees and bonobos are our closest relatives on the evolutionary tree, they do not represent in their own locomotion good proto-models of what led to human upright posture and walking.

While the book does not need to be read in any particular order, the first two chapters set the stage and the terminology for the rest of Apes and Human Evolution, which consists of five parts, totaling 13 dense chapters. A glossary of terms would have helped, but it’s not too much of a distraction to look up the specialist terms Tuttle introduces in these opening sections.

But lest you think it is intended chiefly for colleagues in the fields of anthropology and evolutionary biology, Tuttle’s style throughout is crisp and often witty. (The chapter on the development of human bipedalism, for example, is called ‘How to Achieve an Erection’.)

Professor Russell H. Tuttle, University of Chicago. Image courtesy of Phys.org.

The opening chapter, ‘Mongrel Models and Seductive Scenarios of Human Evolution’ discusses several hypotheses of human origins, some of which Tuttle argues are biased and which in recent years more detailed study of apes has refuted.

He has a low opinion, for example, of the idea that humans are in essence a species of ‘killer apes’, a notion that gained popularity during the last century. “The views of Charles Darwin,” he writes, “are restrained in comparison with the speculations by the advocates of killer ape scenarios, which flourished for several decades after the horrors of World War I and World War II.”

Darwin portrayed early man (his term) as having “sprung from some comparatively weak creature,” who was not speedy and who lacked natural bodily defenses, namely, formidable canine teeth. Consequently, this bipedal creature was stimulated to use his intellectual powers to make weapons for defense and hunting and to cooperate with “his fellow-men”.

What distinguishes humans among the approximately 400 extant species of primates? In Tuttle’s view, a constellation of morphological and behavioral characteristics, some of which only can be traced precisely through the fossil and archeological records.

Obligate terrestrial bipedalism, precision-gripping hands, reduced teeth and jaws, and ballooned brains can be identified if fossils are complete enough in the skeletal regions under study. Archeological artifacts and features can indicate the presence of tool use and manufacture, control of fire, fabricated shelters, bodily ornamentation, mortuary practice, plastic and graphic arts, and other indications of cognitive skills and culture.

There are also the features that can’t be easily found in fossils or the archeological records, primarily social: cooperation, the ability to enlist new members from outside the immediate community of hominids.

Space does not allow a detailed review of each chapter, summaries of which you can find here. But in the final part, ‘What Makes Us Human?’, Tuttle reveals more of his own philosophical reflections on the matter.

One passage that struck me, for example, occurs in the sub-section, ‘What is More Real: God or Race?’

I believe that God is an ever-increasing collective emergent of the love of all beings past, present and future, but this cannot be proven by available scientific methods of experimentation or controlled comparison. In contrast, the belief in race, in the sense of biological subspecies of Homo Sapiens, lacks a tangible basis; indeed, it has been proven unsupportable genomically, behaviorally, and phenotypically.

Individuals and political groups have manipulated both God and race for nefarious purposes, but actions rooted in the human capacity to affiliate with non-kin, to cooperate, and especially to unite in love and respect for the agency of others has given rise to a variety of constructive social codes that facilitate intragroup and extensive intergroup harmony and mitigate disruptive personal and social behavior.

Whereas scientists possess the means to eliminate belief in human races, they lack the means to eradicate belief in God, and frankly they are probably wasting time and treasure on the exercise.

There’s an optimism here I found somewhat reminiscent of the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, who had a very goal-oriented view of humanity and its role in cosmic evolution.

I could’t resist asking Tuttle whether Teilhard’s writings had any influence on his own thought as he embarked on his career in the 1960s. This was around the time that Teilhard’s writings were becoming most influential.

“Quite the contrary,” Tuttle replied in an email. “I thought Phenomenon of Man was rubbish. Father Teilhard wanted to be an evolutionary biologist while not giving up God. He did a shoddy job of reconciling deep religious belief with evolutionary biology…for one, he was an orthogenecist [i.e., he believed in progressive, directional evolution, toward a universal goal].”

“I cannot see a reconciliation of the two realms,” Tuttle added. “I believe in the power of love which some or many see as an aspect of God. But I do not think  there is a celestial, etherial being that is interested in us or that makes good or bad things happen.”

Tuttle elaborated on this in a recent review he wrote for the American Journal of Psychology: “As a Christian participant observer into my late teens, followed by two decades attempting to be an atheist, and then participation in the music ministry at a wide variety of churches over the past 30 years, I aver that the bonding of congregations based on love of God and one another are substantive enough to withstand the sarcastic remarks and mockery of professed atheists who command notable space in print media and on the airways.”

Apes and Human Evolution is also available in Kindle Edition. But given the slight difference in price, I recommend getting the print edition.

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