Humans: Last but not first


March 22, 2014

The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution.

Henry Ge

University of Chicago Press, 2013

Pp. xiii+203.  Illustrations.  $26.  ISBN: 978-0-226-28488-0.

The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution by senior Nature editor Henry Gee is about the false way in which so many (including scientists) approach and interpret the problem of human origins.  Above all, Gee faults people for reading evolution as a determined progression up from the blob to humankind, monad to man, as they used to say in Victorian times.  As he points out, in a Darwinian world of relativistic natural selection such a belief is simply not warranted.  To make his case, Gee (who is nothing if not a skilled and confident writer) takes us on a lively journey from the discovery of the little creature from Indonesia, Homo floresiensis, better known as the hobbit, through parasites and their complexity (or non-complexity) and on to a gallimaufry of somewhat related topics like the inadequacy of the fossil record (nice comparisons here with the loss of manuscripts from the English Dark Ages), the joys of being able to look at each other’s genitalia because we walk upright, and the issue of sentience, that is conscious awareness. 
Expectedly Gee rather favors the views of people like the philosopher Daniel Dennett who put it all down to material causes and finds nothing that exceptional about humans as opposed to the seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes who made humans special because they uniquely in the living world have thinking substance.  I particularly enjoyed Gee’s discussion of the cleverness of crows.  Apparently, it is all a matter of being sociable, something that crows and modern humans are good at but apparently something the Neanderthals rather flunked and look where they are now.  Actually, as we learn, thanks to a bit of extra-curricular activity by wandering members of the two sub-species, Neanderthals are lurking 4% in our gene pool, which leads to the rather delicious speculation that hermits have rather too many of those alien genes and politicians rather too few.
I have considerable sympathy with Gee’s position.  Years back, when my children were of an age that natural history museums were welcome ways to spend wet Sunday afternoons, I used to amuse myself by noting just how many displays did indeed give the impression that it is all about us.  A favorite was the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  In the basement there was a really good display about human evolution, with explicit warnings about mistakenly thinking that evolution necessarily ends with Anglo-Saxons with a New England accent.  Then upstairs, in the Hall of Mammals, one was led from the tiny shrew at one end of the room to the great apes ending with Homo sapiens at the other!  The wonderful evolution display in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, on the left bank of the Seine in Paris, actually ends with the visitors captured on closed-circuit television.  Confirming what I and their mother had always known, the Ruse children are the apotheosis of four billion years of gradual development! 
Gee’s is an entertaining book and (it is fairly short) worth an hour or two of your time.  I do rather miss a sense of passion about the topic and – perhaps it is the nature of books such as these – any real grappling with the issues at stake. For a start, why does the topic of progress have such a hold on people, including distinguished (or at least well-known) evolutionists like Edward O, Wilson and Richard Dawkins?  Could it be that the Creationists are right and that evolution for them functions as a kind of religion substitute, where humans are just as important for these scientists as they are for people committed to a Genesis-based view of origins?  Both sides make our species central and think that our welfare is the point of it all.  I would have thought it might be worth digging into some of the voluminous literature to see if there is anything to this.
Then I am a little surprised that there is no attempt to take on the arguments of those who do believe in evolutionary progress and who argue for it even in the light of Darwinian causes, or sometimes precisely on the basis of Darwinian causes.  Charles Darwin himself was the first to play this game.  He invoked a kind of version of what today’s evolutionists call “arms races,” where one line of organisms competes against another line – the prey gets faster and the predator gets faster in response.  He thought that this kind of relative progress could eventually lead to some kind of absolute progress and that in the end big brains were bound to emerge.  We find a modern version of this argument being pushed by people like Dawkins, who argues in the Blind Watchmaker that military arms races depend more and more on electronic equipment and that the winners in the world of organisms are those with the biggest on-board computers.  The fact that we humans may be twenty-three times brighter than the hippo is not definitive, but it does tell us “something.”  The thought of administering IQ tests to large African mammals rather boggles the mind.
I confess I am a little uncomfortable about some of the motivations that Gee does ascribe to the scientists involved in the quest for human origins.  He gives a most interesting behind-the-scenes account of the arrival at Nature of that astonishing paper that informed the world about the hobbit, and the fact that, until just a few thousand years ago, there was an apparently flourishing population of little people, humanlike but clearly not of our species.  Gee is surely right that Homo floresiensis really puts the cat among the pigeons, and shows the folly of claims that the whole of the evolutionary process leads in a steady march to us. The hobbit is an incredibly interesting discovery.  I much enjoy teasing my good friend, the paleoanthropologist Don Johanson, telling him that his discovery of the little hominin that could walk upright and yet had a chimpanzee-size brain, Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy”), now only gets the silver medal for Great Fossil finds.  Yet, I am not sure that the hobbit very much upsets those who believe in evolutionary progress.  Even the greatest promoters of the idea of upwards climb, like Julian Huxley (grandson of Thomas Henry and older brother of Aldous), thought that there were byways and regressions.  More than that, I doubt that those who denied the significance of the hobbit – thinking it might be a modern human with some defect like cretinism – denied because they were defending progress.  Given the way that students of the human fossil record too often pump up their finds, if not resort to fraudulent claims – Gee is good on the Piltdown fraud – I am not at all surprised that there were those who, when hobbit was announced, took a skeptical pose.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.
If you want a good little primer on modern thinking about human evolution, then you could do far worse that The Accidental Species.  Henry Gee writes well and he has a nice taste for the absurd and the unintentionally amusing.  You will learn quite a bit about the state of the fossil record and about how hard it is to make sense of the limited findings that we do have.  You will not find anything particularly path breaking, but you will not be led astray.  In an age where pseudo-science and religiously motivated attacks on major empirical theories are best sellers, that is much more than faint praise.

Michael Ruse
Program in the History and Philosophy of Science
Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, 32306
Michael Ruse’s most recent books are The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Darwin and Evolutionary Thought (Cambridge, 2013) and The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet (Chicago, 2013).