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Planet of the apes

What we really know about our evolutionary past – and what we don’t


Evolving: The Human Effect and Why it Matters, by Daniel J Fairbanks, Prometheus Books, RRP£16.99/$19, 352 pages

Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins, by Ian Tattersall, Palgrave Macmillan, RRP£16.99/$26, 288 pages

Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature, by David P Barash, OUP, RRP£18.99/$27.95, 384 pages

Once upon a time, there was an ape that stood up. Why it stood up nobody knows, but once upright it found it could use its hands to fashion tools from sticks and stones. So it stayed standing up. And once it decided to stay standing up, its brain started to grow. Why its brain started to grow nobody knows, but with a bigger brain the ape, which was by now an ape-man, could make better tools and even speak. Why it started to speak nobody knows. And by then it wasn’t an ape-man any more, but a human. And those humans with the most developed brains – Homo sapiens – used their cunning to spread throughout the world. All the many other kinds of human and ape-man died. Why they died nobody knows.

When the Homo sapiens were lords of all, some of them became curious about where they had come from. Having a poor collective memory, they at first thought the world had simply been handed to them by a god who happened to look just like they did. But a few began using their inflated brains to try to piece together a story about how it had all begun with an ape that had once stood up. And three of them even wrote new books on the subject.

There remains something about the evolutionary account of our origins that sounds a little like a just-so story. Until a century and a half ago it would have been regarded by the most educated person as just that – a witty tale in slightly poor taste; science fiction perhaps, but not science. This incredulity lingers: although now firmly established in the minds of most Europeans, evolutionary theory remains highly contentious worldwide. Notoriously, this includes in the US. According to a Gallup poll conducted this year, nearly half of Americans believe we humans were created by God just as we are today, whereas a further third believe in a process of “intelligent design” guided by a divine hand. Only 15 per cent accept that we evolved unaided from some surprisingly upright apes.

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TAGGED: BOOKS, EVOLUTION, REVIEWS


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