Coming from a man with Tattersall's qualifications, this book springs real surprises on the reader. Viewing the human evolutionary process in reverse, he begins with Paleolithic age art and retains a strongly European oriented view thoughout the book. Presented an image of "superior" European founders of our cultural heritage, it's almost impossible to shed the WASP image he conjures in the reader. While it's convenient to replace "Homo sapiens" with the [hopefully] less cumbersome "Cro-Magnon", Tattersall leaves us in no doubt that either label remains limited to the European scene.
Confirming this narrow view in the first chapter, he offers the astonishing statement that "art, as such, is a concept invented by Western civilization." This proposal might be forgiven as an editing oversight, if the remainder of the book didn't sustain it. Conceding Australian Aborigine art as "curious", he fails to note it predates his beloved French gallery by ten millennia. Coming from a Curator of Anthropology, it's an astonishing submission.
Broadening our view, readers are cautioned to spend time on Chapter 3, "Evolution for What?" A review of various renderings of Darwin's evolution by natural selection, the aim of the chapter is to disabuse readers of the idea that evolution has a purpose. However, there's a subtle agenda. Not hidden, subtle. He gives us the background of Darwin's thinking in developing the thesis, following that with 20th Century investigators possessing the tools of genetics. Assembling scholars from the mid-twentieth century, he builds what he labels the "Evolutionary Synthesis" which generally supported the idea of gradual change in species. Based on genetics, the Synthesis challenged patterns exhibited by the fossil record. A new challenge arose, this time against the Synthesis, in the form of the Eldredge-Gould idea of punctuated equilibrium, or "evolution by jerks."
Tattersall abandons any remaining objectivity at this point to defend his chum Eldredge against critics. While granting absolution to Eldredge and Gould's "inevitable" overstatement of their case, he condemns George Williams and Richard Dawkins for their focus on genetic adaptation as the centrepiece of evolution's process. Labelling Dawkins a "reductionist" in proposing the gene drives evolution, he claims that such ideas are "always attractive to the human mind". Tattersall contends Dawkins' viewpoint "eliminates anything larger than the individual gene as an actor in the evolutionary process". Like most of Dawkins' critics, Tattersall deftly ignores Dawkins' repeated reminder that "the individual gene" works in concert with its fellows and its host organism within the broader environment. Although an interesting review of the evolutionary scenarios, this chapter is almost a non-sequitur to the remainder of the book.
In a bizarre turn for an anthropologist, Tattersall blithely discounts the scope of studies in primate--human behaviour patterns. Having declared art an artefact of Western Civilization, he ignores the many examples of art by animals other than human. Elephants, chimpanzees and others have produced art that fooled even the critics, but Tattersall ignores its existence. Overlooking physical disparities between humans and other primates, he disparages claims that chimpanzees can develop even rudimentary language skills. In short, based on language, art and cognitive abilities, humans are simply too unique to be grouped with our primate cousins.
Finally, Tattersall traces the hominid exodus from Africa. A single sentence acknowledges early hominids in eastern Asia. From that he gives extended attention to emigration into Europe. Contending with Neanderthal populations which preceded them, the Cro-Magnon directly overcame Neanderthal. How was this feat accomplished by a creature with a smaller brain than that of its adversary? He gives early hominid tool-makers enhanced cognitive skills instead of learning by sheer opportunism. In line with Eldredge's "evolutionary jerks," this grants these "Cro-Magnon" a sudden intellectual growth spurt leading to tool production, a questionable assumption. Once established, this process increased Homo sapiens' intellect giving them dominance over their larger but "dumber" fellows. Neanderthals at best were imitative, lacking originality and inventiveness.
In a novel proposal for establishment of human communities, Tattersall suggests they're based on the human birth canal. Unlike other primates, the canal's position makes births difficult enough to require assistance. Gatherings of midwives led to interdependent communities of individuals. Contributing language skills enlarged the capacity of these communities to form more cohesive establishments - the village. Language is also granted the primary role for Cro-Magnon's elimination of Neanderthal - communication is a key military element. Conquest allowed the leisure for artistic skills to follow.
While this book is offers many assertions departing from consensus paleoanthropology, perhaps it's that very aberration that gives it value. While the mainstream path of evolution clearly refutes the idea of punctuated equilibrium, there's no disputing the course of human evolution is abrupt and unique. No other species has achieved the intelligence level of Homo sapiens nor, as Tattersall reminds us, has any species established global occupation. This book is a valuable read for the novelty of many its assertions. It should not, therefore, be read and comprehended in isolation. Other studies on evolution's course and humanity's place on it should join this book on your shelves.