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Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins (Macmillan Science) [Hardcover]

Ian Tattersall
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

26 April 2012 Macmillan Science

When homo sapiens made their entrance 100,000 years ago they were confronted by a wide range of other early humans - homo erectus, who walked better and used fire; homo habilis who used tools; and of course the Neanderthals, who were brawny and strong. But shortly after their arrival, something happened that vaulted the species forward and made them the indisputable masters of the planet. This book is devoted to revealing just what that difference is. It explores how the physical traits and cognitive ability of homo sapiens distanced them from the rest of nature. Even more importantly, Masters of the Planet looks at how our early ancestors acquired these superior abilities; it shows that their strange and unprecedented mental facility is not, as most of us were taught, simply a basic competence that was refined over unimaginable eons by natural selection. Instead, it is an emergent capacity that was acquired quite recently and changed the world definitively.

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Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins (Macmillan Science) + Evolving: The Human Effect and Why it Matters + Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (26 April 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 023010875X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0230108752
  • Product Dimensions: 24.2 x 16.3 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 333,875 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"…succinct and masterful …Tattersall takes us from 6 million years ago in Africa's Rift Valley to the present day. On the way, he brilliantly describes humanity's cousins and rivals, from apes to the other hominins that competed with H. sapiens as, tens of thousands of years ago, our ancestors made the cognitive leap to symbolic thought…' - Nature
' authoritative snapshot of the ongoing struggle to understand our evolutionary past...Tattersall does an excellent job of showing how we can sketch the story of our origins from the new precious fossil remains, while at the same time not glossing over our ignorance of such crucial details.' -Stephen Cave, The Financial Times


Book Description

The definitive account of human origins that focuses on how humans prevailed among other hominid species through our cognitive superiority

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great read. 11 Dec 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
If you are interested in the origins of homo sapiens then this is an enlightening read. I was expecting the chapters to continue and was a bit disappointed that the reading came to an end before the book because many pages were reference material. However I would still recommend it.
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63 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "...the Distillation of a Longish Career..." 9 April 2012
By Ralph White - Published on
"Our narrative-loving species," as Ian Tattersall characterizes Homo sapiens, has long searched for the quintessentially human feature - that which unambiguously denotes our kind. Throughout history several unsatisfying candidates for that keystone feature have been offered up, including, inter alia, bipedalism, brain size, tool use, and language. For Tattersall, who has spent a career devoted to the question, that quintessential element is H. sapiens' use of symbolism.

In the early chapters of Masters of the Planet Tattersall introduces the reader to the practice of paleoanthropology, its essential vocabulary, and the state of the science. The reader gets just enough information about early hominid cranial shapes, dental wear patterns, skeletal variations, tool use, and geochronology as is absolutely necessary. We visit Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa as fossils and their strata are carefully unearthed, dated, and interpreted. We learn about early hominids' toolkits, their social lives, and survival mechanisms. We also get a refresher on genetics and geology.

It is only in the last thirty thousand years of the two and a half million year panorama of successive hominid speciation and extinction that our use of symbolism is unequivocally documented. It is only when cave art appears at Chauvet, Lascaux, and Altamira that we are entirely satisfied that our ancestors have become as cognitive as we. This transition, Tattersall points out, would be utterly unbelievable if it had not actually happened. For the first hundred thousand years of our species' existence we were unaware of our brain's latent capacity for symbolism.

When such new applications for already evolved anatomical features are introduced they are called "exaptations." Tattersall suggests that human exceptionalism is the result of one particular exaptation, the use of our brains (specifically the angular gyrus) for symbolic thought. That symbolism leveraged our tool kit, empowered us with language, and made us Masters of the Planet. Tattersall's thoughtful "Coda" entreats responsibility in our custodianship of that planet, now that we are its masters.
45 of 45 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A thought- provoking, informative account 26 Aug 2012
By danielx - Published on
"Masters of the Planet" provides an excellent overview of the current state of our knowledge of the evolution of humans and other hominids. Back in the 1960s, hominid evolution could still be viewed as unilinear and progressive, leading towards "Homo sapiens " along a single axis of evolutionary change. As outlined in this book, an impressive array of fossil finds and sophisticated technical analyses have yielded a very different picture, one in which diverse lineages of hominids existed simultaneously and interacted. The profusion of paleontological discoveries has buried the traditional creationist myth of "missing links." Indeed, the sheer number of fossils and structurally intermediate forms has sometimes made it difficult to determine which of the many candidates is closely- related to which.

Ian Tattersall, author of "Masters of the Planet", is curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He brings to the issues a lifetime of expertise in hominid evolution, as well as abundant experience in writing books and articles for fellow scientists and general audiences. The book is organized historically, and traces the diverse and complicated history of hominids over the past 7-8 million years. Beginning with the ancient origins of the hominid lineage, it outlines the rise of bipedal apes, the variety of australopiths (including "Lucy"), life on the savannah, emergence from Africa (an event that occurred multiple times), the spread of early "Homo" throughout the Old World continents, the enigmatic Neandertals (distant cousins to ourselves, not ancestors - except to the degree in which we interbred), and ultimately, the arrival of modern "H. sapiens. " The book does not focus entirely on skeletal features. Rather, such aspects as development of social behavior, running ability, loss of body hair, diet, use of fire, and cooking all get their due. Tattersall's account leads towards recognition of the distinctiveness of our species, as manifested by language as well as symbolic behavior, features that he considers to be responsible for our species' success.

In tracing hominid diversity and evolutionary history, Tattersall draws on contemporary technological analyses to reveal details that would have been unimaginable a decade or so ago. Thus, readers may be surprised to find what isotope analyses have revealed about diets of early hominids, and what genetic analyses have shown about skin and hair color in Neandertals. Tattersall does not shy from recognizing unresolved issues and persistent controversies. He fairly presents alternative viewpoints, and freely acknowledges areas where a scarcity of evidence has rendered divergent interpretations viable.

As one who has read many books on hominid evolution, I found Tattersall's work to be interesting and informative. My copy is now replete with penciled comments and bent- down page corners to mark fascinating issues and controversial matters. While the book's dealings with uniqueness of our own species' overlaps that of Brian Fagan's recent "Cro-Magnon," I found Tattersall's account preferable in some respects. The latter recognizes the emergence of artistic expression (starting at least 70,000 years ago) as a worldwide phenomenon rather than one local to Europe and Asia, in accord with its status as a species characteristic.

Notwithstanding my high regard for this book, it is not free of error. The hyoid apparatus is not a "bony portion of the Adam's apple" (as stated on page 36). Rather, the hyoid consists of thin cartilages that support the tongue and its musculature, while the so-called Adam's apple is the larynx. (How the two could be confused by a paleo-anatomist is most puzzling). "Exaptation" is wrongly presented as a non- adaptationist mechanism (pages 44, 68, and 210), in which features arise by chance and only later evolve to take on a function. Evolutionary biologists will recognize this characterization as mistaken. In exaptation, features that are evolutionary adapted to serve one function are transformed through natural selection to serve some new function (as outlined in Gould and Vrba's original 1982 paper in Paleobiology and throughout the modern literature). As another example, the author suggests that "members of the genus "Homo" have been consistently predisposed in the same way towards brain size increase"(page 132) since brain enlargement occurred in three separate lineages. However, one need not infer any special mechanism or attribute unique to our genus. A trend towards brain enlargement has occurred independently in many mammalian lineages, as well as in numerous linages of birds and cartilaginous fishes, and even among molluscs and arthropods. In this respect, hominids appear (with aquatic mammals) as an extreme example of a widespread evolutionary trend.

Some interpretations in the book are quite speculative, leading to weak inferences. For example, discovery of one toothless male skull (the Dmanisi specimen) is taken as evidence for long- term compassionate behavior among "Homo erectus" era hominids, on the grounds that the individual would not have been able to chew his own food. (Page 124: " seems entirely reasonable to conclude that the Dmanisi hominids had the cognitive reserves to express their fellow- feeling in the form of material support"). In view of the profusion of other interpretations, the inference is unnecessarily speculative. One might also question the book's central claim that emergence of artistic expression in our species paralleled the development of a unique form of psychology, as manifested in our capacity for symbolic thought. Fossils reveal little about psychology, and how early symbolic thought arose arguably is entirely a matter of speculation - cave art and jewelry notwithstanding.

Such issues do not detract from a work that, on the whole, is one of the best modern accounts available; indeed, some of the above manifests the fascinating and thought - provoking nature of this book. Overall, I would strongly recommend "Masters of the Planet" as an interesting and informative account of the diversity and evolutionary history of the bipedal apes and we their descendants.
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Look Down, Look Down That Lonesome Road! 4 April 2012
By Otto Bingo - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall's lifelong fascination with humanity's prehistoric past shines through every page of his new book, "Masters of the Planet." As curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History, his mature reflections on the long, winding road our species has traveled is full of surprises and state-of-the-science information.
Tattersall is a seasoned and eminently reasonable guide, as well as a crystal-clear communicator in a field that can be technical and bewildering to the interested general reader and expert alike.
He is above all a sifter - sorting out the significant from the trivial among thousands of clues from fossil apes and humans, their predators and prey, petrified footprints, hi-tech reconstructions of past climates and ecologies, relevant recent studies of primate behavior and cognition, origin of language studies, and much more.
Eschewing a mere catalogue of stones and bones, Tattersall tackles head-on the questions about which we are most curious: Who performed the first known human burials? Where can we first see evidence of empathy and care for others, and its diametric opposite-- cannibalism? What were the similarities and differences in culture and behavior between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals? If several species of humans co-existed for thousands of years at the same times and places, how is it that only one now stands alone as "Masters of the Planet?"
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars master of explanation 8 May 2012
By Nigel Kirk - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I bought this book on spec after it was reviewed in a science journal, wary of the difficulty of meaningfully covering the emergence of the hominids to the ascent of Homo sapiens in a relatively brief book. Tattersall overcomes this admirably. His account is very clear on where the gaps lie, particularly in respect of both the jump from primates to bipedal hominids and in the appearance of Homo sapiens.

Tattersall provides an excellent summary of current knowledge, and explains how our understanding of evolving anatomy, behaviour and genetics has changed the science of anthropology while it still primarily relies on fossilised remains and tools as evidence. The change in gait and skeletal structure as Australopithecus emerges, the tradeoffs as the savannah is exploited, the demands of an energy hungry brain, the improvement of tools as hominids relied less on throwing rocks - there are many elements in this history which the author collates comprehensively and with clarity. The supporting evidence is very disparate, each item often fascinating in its own right, and it is presented in a lively account which explains dates and places in a logical sequence. The Notes provided at the end are general and introduce bibliographies chapter by chapter, and therefore are not in a format that could be usefully referenced from the text (the merits of continuing a story through references to Notes at the end of the book are ambivalent, so this is not necessarily a criticism).

In a key later chapter, Tattersall looks for the `keystone' factor that allowed Homo sapiens its dominance. Some fascinating ideas, while not referenced, have also been introduced elsewhere - for neural networking see Sebastien Seung's Connnectome, and for the invention of language by children see Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct. Tattersall's collation of possibilities and theories is central to this part of the story, and his conjecture is stimulating and balanced.

Tattersall has an easy style which helps explain reasonably complex developments. He has the academic confidence to rate the merits of conflicting arguments without diminishing divergent contributions. This book provides an up-to-date account of the breakthroughs that modern tools have provided anthropology and, while new developments will certainly alter the story, this is a good synthesis to allow an enthusiast to follow new developments.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly, but less fun than Last Ape Standing 15 Dec 2013
By Steve G - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
I was very torn about this book. As a casual reader, I found the content of this book interesting but it read very scholarly. It was well written but not terribly accessible. At times, author Ian Tattersall could show some lightness and humor, but otherwise it was pure content. I found that Last Ape Standing by Chip Walter was a lot more fun to read. Importantly though, although the books overlap, Tattersall spent more time discussing Neanderthals than did Walter. My indecision about this book comes from recognizing that there will be many readers who will appreciate Tattersall’s more scholarly approach. The score I gave it (three stars) is for the reader, like me, reading for fun. I preferred Last Ape Standing.
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