This is a book about the evolution of humankind. It applies Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection to the evidence (then available), i.e. early human fossils, and seeks to outline the state of anthropological knowledge as it existed in the mid-1990's. While further evidence has subsequently come to light, allowing for new developments and insights, the theory of evolution and the broad approach offered by anthropology remains the same ... indeed, the theory has been increasingly tested by the new evidence, and in consequence it has been vindicated. So, although aspects of this book are now somewhat dated, the underlying theory and arguments remain sound.
This is a well-written book, with a popular readership intended. The author, Richard Leakey (a respected scientist within anthropology), presents his ideas with clarity and precision, and as such this book is a highly useful educational tool. It explores human prehistory, from approx. 7 million years ago to approx. 100,000 years ago - i.e. from when there were several species of bipedal ape through to the origin of modern humans. Leakey examines the evolutionary changes that occurred - and in so doing draws, in part, on ecology and psychology. The book examines language, art, and the Mind.
For the most part, this book is a summary of the work and findings of anthropologists during the 20th century. These aspects of the book remain relevant. As such, if you're studying the history of science then this might well be an important book. But I also recommend this book to anyone fascinated by the story of human evolution. Given that the book is so easy to follow and understand, it's a rewarding read.
A very readable basic introduction to the key issues and debates in this field, and pointers to more detailed reading. The author has his own opinions, but sets out the terms of the debate in a fair way. The only specific point I would question is the use of the term "human" to describe all bipedal homin(o)ids, even those living before any use of stone technology or language. The book could also usefully have had some more illustrations, especially in the chapter on art.
on 7 January 2001
The Origin of Humankind is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the subject of anthropology. The book covers the author's personal views and opinions and gives a broader introduction to the subject in general. Well-written and easy to read, Leakey really brings his subject to life. His chapters on language and art, and the relationship between the two subjects are vibrant and griping. He speculates about how prehistoric art came to be and its significance in the lives of its creators. Leakey combines solid scientific facts and figures with a more romantic speculation about the lives of our ancestors, resulting in a book that reads like a novel in places and a textbook in others. However, far from being detrimental to the book, this adds to it's appeal, anthropology being a subject which will always result in some blurring of the otherwise sharp lines between science and art. His flight of fancy about the daily routine of our ancestor the hunter gatherers in a river side settlement is either gloriously evocative or ridiculously unlikely, depending on how cynical you are feeling when you are reading it. I found it initially to be the former, and on re-reading to be the later. The book never goes into a great deal of depth, which is unsurprising considering the difficulty of the task Leakey has set himself; compressing millions of years of human evolution into a few hundred pages. It is therefore ideal as a 'beginner's guide to anthropology' but scholars may find that some parts are over-simplified or important issues passed over. All in all I found the book thoroughly enjoyable, intriguing, and exciting. It is interesting to compare this book to 'Adam's Ancestors' written by Richard Leakey's father LSB Leakey; I found the style of writing to be very similar. The Origin of Humankind, however, has the obvious advantage of being the more modern publication, and is therefore more adapted to our television generation, being more dynamic and visual.
Published in 1994, this is part of the Science Masters series in which ". . . leading scientists describe the current state of knowledge in their subject, and speculate about future developments."
In this subject Richard Leakey has a distinguished record and a distinguished ancestry being the son of Louis and Mary Leakey, pioneers of human palaeontology in East Africa. Here he gives a survey of the subject from the Australopithecines through Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus, the Neanderthals, archaic Homo Sapiens and then on to ourselves. He discusses the origins of art, of language and the of human mind. He describes what is generally accepted and what is not, and in areas of dispute gives the various competing theories. Surprisingly there is a whole chapter on the Out-of-Africa theory, which he accepts, compared with the Multi-Regional theory of the origins of modern humans. This may be a reflection of the Out-O-Africa theory still not being widely accepted in 1994 or it may be Leakey's consideration of the importance of the topic.
This is a short book of 157 pages plus preface, bibliography and index. It includes black and white illustrations including diagrams, line drawings and printed photographs.
The inclusion of competing theories may put off some readers who require certainty and its date of publication may deter those who want to be completely up-to-date. The lack of glossy colour reconstructions of our ancestors, with flesh put on the bones, may deter those requiring immediate visualisations as seen on TV. However, this is an enjoyable and stimulating read.