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The Origin of Our Species - Chris Stringer

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Print Length: 352 pages / Publisher: Penguin / Published: 30 Jun 2011

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      27.12.2012 13:05
      Very helpful



      A super resource for learning about the history and evolution of our species

      The great man Charles Darwin, on the 24th November 1859, published arguably one of the most important books ever written - "On the Origin of Species". This book set the ball rolling for what is now the established field of evolutionary biology...in layman's terms the research into the evolutionary path a species has taken since its inception and also the origin of any new species. There's no escaping the fact that humans are a masterpiece of nature's engineering, despite our many many flaws, making us easily the most adaptable species currently on the planet, notably for our substitution of potentially helpful biological traits needed for survival with those of tools and technology, all made possible by our mysterious and large brains. But obviously we didn't just develop overnight and tracing the origin of our species right back to the start is something I've always found utterly fascinating but really hard to get my head around with the enormous timescale in which our evolution has occurred (some 6-7 million years which just makes your brain hurt to think about) plus the sheer volume of different hominid species coming and going along the way until we finally have settled upon just us modern day Homo sapiens.

      The below somewhat hacked chart, for those that are interested, was where I started my journey back to our origins which outlines all the different species (and this may well be out of date now) since great apes fell out of the trees. As an ignorant person I definitely need help in deciphering this:

      ==My Crude Hominid evolutionary chart (MYA = million years ago) - seriously, who actually named these:==


      7 MYA:_________ Sahelanthropus tchadensis________________


      6 MYA:____ Orrorin Tugensis______________________________
      _______________________________Ardipithe​cus kadabba_____


      5 MYA:________________________Ardipithecus ramidus_______
      ________________Australopithecus anamensis_______________


      4 MYA:
      Kenyanthropus Platyops________Australopithecus bahrelghazzali
      _______________Australopithecus afarensis_________________


      3 MYA:
      _Australopithecus africanus________ Paranthropus aethiopicus_
      _________________Australopithecus garhi__________________
      Kenyanthropus rudolfensis_____________________________​___


      2 MYA: ___________Homo habillis________Paranthropus boisei
      Homo ergaster__________Paranthropus robustus_____________
      __ Homo erectus_________________________________​_______


      1 MYA: ___Homo cepranensis_____Homo antecessor__________
      __________________ Homo heidelbergensis__________________
      Homo floriensis______________________________​____________
      ______Homo neanderthalensis______Homo sapiens (archaic)____


      Present:________________________Homo sapiens (modern)____


      Sometime after I'd spotted a chap named Chris Stringer on various documentaries that had trips to the National History Museum (his research base) through which I learnt he was a British anthropologist particularly involved in the "Out of Africa" theory, I was perusing the science section on my Kindle when I stumbled across the book "The Origin of Our Species (2011)" by none other than Chris Stringer and before any conscious thought was possible my synapses had already fired and made me subconsciously purchase the book for £5.99, which isn't a bad price for a non-fiction book in my opinion. Basically, as long as the following questions were answered I knew I'd be happy: a). How, as in my crudely constructed hominid chart, have we got from the early apes 6 million years ago still merrily living in trees to today's single modern humans with all these extinct species in between and b). How can scientists tell the age and identify these different species from just some old bits of bone? Oh, and c). Will we ever evolve with wings and / or gills?

      ==The Book==


      This gives the mission statement for the book which is basically to collate together the vast scattering of opposing theories and data from all the different sources, particularly the specialist journals and rare books that the general public may find it hard to reach, and combine this with Chris Stringer's own 30 years of experience to achieve a comprehensive analysis of all there is to know about how our species came about. Sounds pretty easy to me.

      ===Chapter 1: The Big Questions===

      This chapter was a bit like a literature review by starting from all the earliest theories set out by Darwin et al. and moving forwards through the timeline discussing many notable archaeological finds and their significance to changing theories over the years as well as introducing the concept of multi-regionalism which shows the regional changes that have occurred to the same species due to environmental factors i.e. different races. There was a lot of fascinating historical information to be gleaned from this chapter and it set the foundation for the rest of the book to build on.

      ===Chapter 2: Unlocking The Past===

      This was a technical chapter outlining all the different methods for dating the various uncovered bones and skulls either through a relative (radiometric) date which can place two objects together at the same time, e.g. during a massive event like a tsunami or volcanic eruption, without actually knowing when that time exactly was or a physical (absolute) date which can determine the actual date (as closely as possible). In here we start with carbon-dating, yeah yeah, we all remember that from GCSE science, but that will only take you as far back as 50,000 years before it becomes unreliable. So then it gets really interesting covering such techniques as Optical Stimulated and Thermal Luminescence analyses which measures changes in electrons via the two different methods, Electron Spin Resonance which involves exciting electrons (maybe offering them a free holiday) and analysing unpaired ones, isotopic analysis including uranium and potassium-argon and argon-argon as well as dendochronology (the study of tree rings) and looking at varves (sediment layers) in deep lakes which can age things much further back than 50,000 years. There is some really fascinating stuff her for the scientifically minded.

      ===Chapter 3: What Lies Beneath===

      This chapter is a mixture of theory and how ever increasing technological advances is helping us to analysis the size and shape of bones, as well as the inner ear structure which allow experts to determine such things as their posture, movement and even senses, and also through pelvis and birth canal examinations of the method and difficulty of labour can be determined. Alas, the pitfalls of having a large brain make for immature babies and difficult labour. Isotope and teeth analysis can also even determine what they used to eat. Amazing to infer so much from so little.

      ===Chapter 4: Finding The Way Forward===

      This chapter explores the many different evolutionary routes that our predecessors took with an involved discussion into the validity of the "Out of Africa" theory as the origin for our own species and how the small pockets of early hominids would have been able to spread throughout Africa and then further afield as well as a lot of focus on the fascinating and mysterious Hobbit or Flores Man (Homo floriensis) which is an extinct species, at first believed to be an abnormality but now accepted as a separate species, found on the island of Flores in Indonesia with remains and stone tools ranging between 94,000 to 12,000 years ago (so outliving the Neanderthals) and co-existing completely in isolation from Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals for quite some time. Here in this chapter is where a lot of conflicting theories arise, so is quite a good chapter to develop your own opinions, whilst being carefully guided by Chris Stringer.

      ===Chapter 5: Behaving in a Modern Way: Mind-reading and Symbols===

      This is a look at the social aspects of later species, describing biological changes such as the whitening of the sclera in our eyeballs which allows other members of the species to determine precisely where their peer was looking allowing a lot more advanced communication to occur (or "mind-reading") as well as changes in the size of the male genitalia which became more prominent for a show of dominance and to attract the ladies with the suggestion of greater fertility. There is also a look at the thing that sets us apart from other animals which is namely our imagination and ability to create imaginary worlds plus our ability to create concepts and understand the outcomes of choices which can be passed on to later generations through social cooperation and symbolic art. The discovery of old cave drawings plays a big part in understanding the ways our ancient societies developed.

      ===Chapter 6: Behaving in a Modern Way: Technology and Lifeways===

      This chapter looks at the way our society has developed through tool making (first recorded from 300,000 years ago) with textiles, basketry, nets & cords, grinding tools, bows & arrows etc., the development of language, the use of fire where there is evidence it was being controlled as far back as 1.6million - 800,000 years ago, and later how this was used for cooking and what this change in diet did for evolution. Interestingly, there is also recent proof of social support whereby one unfortunate soul after suffering a horrific accident was left brain damaged, partially blind and deaf, paralysed and severely disabled and with a lost arm and a stump for a hand, and yet amazingly survived for years in this state indicating the likelihood of social care.

      ===Chapter 7: Genes and DNA===

      This chapter takes us back to some scary science and here there is a lot of information to be learnt from DNA analysis, mitochondrial (mtDNA) analysis through the female lines only, junk DNA and gene sequencing to draw patterns and learn about what effect tiny changes have on a species. This is quite a complex chapter and whilst it was very interesting at the time, my puny brain has been unable to absorb and retain much of what was discussed, but people well versed in genetics would probably fare much better than me, I'll just accept the conclusions drawn without worrying about the nitty gritty science behind it - it's the only way to sleep at night.

      ===Chapter 8: Making a Modern Human===

      This chapter, the penultimate concluding chapter, dives into the debate of how our own species began, i.e. what affected the split from the previous species be it social and technological advances, geographical isolation or severe climatic change and where it began i.e. was it really in Africa? A breakdown of our biological makeup is also examined to determine what makes us a modern human with regards to the size(volume) of our brain compared to our body mass (encephalization quotient - EQ) and how our brain has enlarged and changed shape over time before moving on to our different types of memory.

      ===Chapter 9: The Past and Future Evolution of Our Species===

      This chapter offers one final look at all the different paths the various different species took and what ultimately led to their extinction and failure to survive. It highlights the fact that there are still so many unanswered (and possibly unanswerable) questions and gaps to fill before we can truly understand how our species came about. There is also one final big question, with an over populated planet and imminent global climate change looming, not to mention the high chance of a zombie apocalypse (not sure that was mentioned in the book) will our species be up to the challenge and adapt quickly enough to the changes, or will we become just another extinct species on the chart?

      ==Book Review==

      My first thoughts on this book are that it was incredibly well researched and extremely comprehensive covering a multitude of different angles and perspectives from the history of evolutionary biology, to the skilful balancing act of many opposing theories, to a look into the social and technological developments of different species and how they survived (or didn't as the case may be) and also a good look behind the science (in a mostly easy to understand way, at least at the time) and how everything we've learnt so far was made possible by our own species in fact developing technology further. I found the style the book was written in lacked the stern academic tone that some non-fiction books take on, and had a nice narrative to it with stories and theories laid out in almost a conversational way at times, whilst maintaining a sense of authoritative expertise from someone who clearly knows their stuff and inspires complete trust. One element I would say was each chapter was written in almost a bulk format so changes in topic within took you buy surprise as there was no obvious break, but apart from this it was incredibly easy to follow and I never found myself becoming despairingly confused or my attention waning at any stage which was refreshing.

      As I mentioned before, this is the Kindle version and there were quite a few diagrams and photographs included which were very useful additions to the text in highlighting examples and enhancing understanding, but the biggest downfall is that they were a). in black and white so some pictures lost a bit of quality that way, and b). some of the more detailed diagrams were a little on the small side and again the quality and detail was lost a touch so in this respect buying the physical book may be a better approach if you like (which I personally do) looking at pictures of ancient skulls and bones, or slightly duller objects like people, tools and maps. I would say this book more than answered all my questions (including ones I didn't even know I had) about our evolution and even though I can't remember half of what I read due to my brain's inability to retain anything, this is also a great book to refer back to for any facts you are interested in, made easier by the Kindle's (or any other eBook reader's) searching facility for those that bought it digitally. So, for those interested in learning about the origins of our species, I can easily recommend this book for covering a wide range of information in an easy to understand and fascinating way. But I still don't know if we are going to develop wings and/or gills in the future.


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