- The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE
This book belongs to the New Oxford World History, under the general editorship of Rutgers University professor Bonnie G. Smith, a highly respected and prolific scholar of global women’s and gender history. The aim of this new series is to provide a comprehensive treatment of a “new world history, one that emphasizes comparisons and interactions” from chronological, thematic, and geographical perspectives. The work under review is the first of seven planned chronological volumes.
It is an ambitious book. In a mere 124 pages of narrative, Tattersall attempts to trace some seven million years of human evolution, from the birth of Hominidae—the zoological family that includes humans—through the development of agriculture and permanent settlements. This could have been a recipe for disaster, but Ian Tattersall, curator in the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, skillfully blends the multifaceted ingredients of human evolution. Tattersall is not only a renowned scholar specializing in the integration of the human fossil record with evolutionary theory, but he is also a prominent and prolific interpreter of human paleontology to the public. He also writes with considerable grace.
In a lucid and at times elegant introduction to the complex field of evolutionary theory, Tattersall stakes out his position on human evolution, a position that frames and informs his subsequent narrative. As [End Page 549] he notes, the twentieth century was a time of contention between two competing views of the evolutionary process. One, originating in the 1920s and 1930s, stressed the process of “phyletic gradualism,” whereby natural selection gradually transformed one species over time into another. This theory, known as the “evolutionary synthesis,” became widely accepted in subsequent decades, and to its supporters it seemed only reasonable to assume that human evolution was nothing less than a constant advancement from primitiveness to perfection. As a practical matter, this implied that the human fossil record formed a continuous chain of intermediate forms that joined our remotest ancestors with Homo sapiens. For many scientists, this also meant that in principle there could only have been one hominid species on earth at any given time.
Not surprisingly, Tattersall declares the “evolutionary synthesis” to be in error, a holdover from earlier days of science that is not congruent with the human fossil record. Scoffing at the simplistic notion of a linear progression of our species, he argues that “the real story is a lot more complicated—and a lot more interesting—than that” (p. 2). Tattersall embraces instead the notion of “punctuated equilibria,” a concept first presented in a paper by the American paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould in 1972. In this view, the existing fossil record does not reflect gradual change but rather episodic change. Species tend to appear quite suddenly, then persist basically unchanged for periods of time, sometimes for millions of years, only to disappear with equal suddenness to be replaced by other species to whom they might or might not have been related. Thus, to Tattersall, the evolutionary history of the hominid family “has been a dynamic saga in which multiple hominid species have originated, done battle in the ecological arena, and, more often than not, have gone extinct” (p. 17).
Tattersall takes the reader on a lively and readable romp through the eons of hominid history. Eschewing brain size as the most distinctive human feature, the author—like most present-day paleoanthropologists—privileges upright, two-legged posture as the defining characteristic of the human lineage. The oldest known hominid who walked upright was Australopithecus anamensis, a species whose fossils date from between 4.2 and 3.9 million years ago. The most famous of several early bipedal hominids, albeit a bit younger, was Lucy, a member of the species Australopithecus afarensis. Weighing no more than sixty pounds and standing only three feet tall, Lucy lived 3.18 million years ago. Like other australopiths, Lucy made her home in Africa.
According to the author, somewhere from among the diverse group [End Page 550] of australopiths emerged...