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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Neither "bold" nor "new," but excellent nonetheless, 27 July 2006
This review is from: The Dawn of Human Culture (Life Sciences) (Hardcover)
Professor Klein and science editor Blake Edgar refer to "innovation" as the key to the great leap forward made by humans about 50,000 years ago. This was the beginning of human culture--the "dawn" as they call it. It wasn't a change in physiology--humans had been anatomically modern for something like 150,000 years. What changed was the wiring in the brain, or the chemistry in the brain or the linkage between the modules in the brain, or, as they express it, there was a "neurological shift"--at any rate, something that would never show up in a fossil.

This is Klein's theory and it is a persuasive one, albeit one that can never be proven--well, probably can never be proven. If under some ice sheet (as the planet continues to warm) we find a 100,000-year-old human intact, perhaps an examination of his or her brain and a comparison with the modern brain will give us the proof. Barring that very unlikely event, there is no way we can see what changed.

But it doesn't matter. Formal proof of Klein's conjecture (and of course, he is hardly the first to present such a theory) is unnecessary. We know from the behavioral changes that took place in something like a twinkling of an eye that humans beginning about 50,000 years ago were suddenly different. They had a culture that developed from the use of what might broadly be called symbolism. We can see this in the petroglyphs and cave art and artifacts that they left. We can also see it in the way they displaced the Neanderthals in Europe and left no trace of Homo erectus elsewhere in the world, and how quickly they spread to the far corners of the planet.

It is easy to see that they must have had symbolic language as well. Indeed, I think language really is the key to what happened, and this is Klein's point as well. The key idea is that "language is almost a kind of sixth sense, since it allows people to supplement their five primary senses with information drawn from the primary senses of others." (p. 146)

Today's mighty culture would be impossible without written language or some means of taking down and recording and maintaining human knowledge. Prior to written language this was done through an oral tradition handed down from one generation to the next. Myths, stories, poetry, ideas, information and methods were memorized and recited. Prior to that however, prior to the use of symbolic language, there would have been only a limited ability to pass ideas down from one generation to the next. It would have been difficult to even share some ideas with a contemporary. But once symbolic language developed, people could demonstrate events and things not present with others through the use of words--that is, symbols standing for the actual objects or events--nouns and verbs.

From a representation symbolically of something seen or something that happened, it was only a step to a representation of something never seen before--such as a net for catching birds or fish or a stampede of wildebeests over a cliff.

This is the innovation that Klein refers to. This is the difference between the Late Stone Age culture and the Middle Stone Age culture, between the Upper Paleolithic and the Mousterian. A human arm can throw a spear, but a human arm extended with a lance can throw the spear farther and with more force. People could travel only so far without water, but a people who carried water in skins or watertight baskets (not preserved in the fossil record obviously!) could travel much farther. Actually I imagine that the first truly modern humans carried soup--yes, soup with its sterile, boiled water--in skins on their backs!

What this book is about then is a close and detailed description of the progression from archaic humans to fully modern humans. It is a carefully constructed argument that shows that the change was not gradual, as some would have it, but abrupt. Whatever one may think about Gould and Eldredge's punctuated equilibrium, Klein makes it clear that in the case of human evolution, a key transformation--indeed THE key transformation--occurred quickly. The most persuasive part of their argument is that the "new" humans were able to not only dazzle us with their symbolic art, etc., they were able to grow their populations and thrive in places where humanoids had never survived before.

This book is also full of interesting information about archeology and anthropology, including how fossils are dated and theories developed. One of my favorite tidbits is this: the size of archaic human populations could be surmised by the size of tortoise bones! Since tortoises were relatively easy to catch, the biggest ones, "the most visible and the most meaty" would have been taken first. So as "the number of collectors increased, average tortoise size declined." (p. 166)

For many readers, the most interesting part of the book might be the distinction that Klein and Edgar make between Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens: "It doesn't follow that Neanderthals and modern humans couldn't interbreed or that they never did, but the DNA results strongly support fossil and archeological findings that if interbreeding occurred, it was rare...this inference, together with fossil evidence...justifies their assignment to...separate species..." (pp. 185-186)

This is not an easy book, but it is not unnecessarily difficult either. I think Klein and Edgar did a good job of treading that fine line between being too technical (and jargony) and not technical enough.

By the way, despite the sensational subtitle (which only appears on the cover), the authors scrupulously and wisely avoid using the word "consciousness" throughout, and nowhere do they speak of a "Big Bang of Human Consciousness."
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