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The Riddled Chain: Chance, Coincidence and Chaos in Human Evolution Hardcover – 31 Jul 2000


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Early treatments of evolution presented our species' transformation from protohominid to Homo sapiens as an orderly affair, a matter of clear lineages and constant progress. That depiction, archaeologist Jeffrey McKee suggests, is a little too neat. Drawing on recent scholarly views of primate evolution and on chaos theory, he instead argues that coincidence, accident, and luck are critically important components of our species' development.

"Human evolution," McKee writes, "has been the product of many forces that together made us neither inevitable nor probable." The same holds true for other species; with all due respect to Lamarck, McKee adds, the giraffe came to have its long neck by a roll of the genetic dice--but a roll that lent the giraffe a competitive advantage over its shorter-necked browsing cousins, and therefore one subsequently reinforced by natural selection. Illustrating his argument with the well-worn "butterfly effect"--wherein a butterfly flapping its wings in Europe can produce a typhoon half a world away--McKee examines the role of chance in the origin and decline of species, emphasising how unpredictable the dynamics of life can be even within the bounds of natural laws.

Within such disorderly circumstances, McKee observes, chance favours species that retain generalised features and behaviours; whereas, he writes, "the fossil record is littered with extinct primates that became too specialised," the ancestors of modern humans were broadly diversified, adapting to different niches and thriving in the bargain. Well written and written at an appropriately general level, McKee's book offers a useful survey of current evolutionary thought. --Gregory McNamee

About the Author

McKee is an associate professor in the department of anthropology as well as the department of evolution, ecology, and organismal biology at The Ohio State University.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0x920fd450) out of 5 stars 9 reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x920f57c8) out of 5 stars How we got bright enough to wonder how we got bright 22 Mar. 2001
By Jeremy M. Harris - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
By choosing "The Riddled Chain" for his title, Prof. McKee may have meant to invoke both meanings of the R-word. First, the eons-long ascent of living things from isolated cells to hyper-cerebral humans was so riddled with the vagaries of chance, coincidence and chaos that a repeat experiment on a twin planet might stall at some low level, or branch in unimaginably strange ways, or fail completely. Second, the unlikely chain that did unfold on Earth is still to some extent a mystery, a riddle waiting to be solved.
Although McKee's informal style and frequent flashes of humor make for pleasant reading, the book also has much to teach. Its central theme reflects the growing realization among scientists that spontaneous development to the level of thinking, planning creatures is a rare event, perhaps much rarer than previously thought. The author puts it succinctly in his opening chapter: "....Human evolution has been the product of many forces that together made us neither inevitable nor probable."
Drawing from Chaos Theory, McKee explores the drastic consequences that minute initial-condition changes can cause in long-duration, many-branched processes such as biological evolution. At the end of such a process it may be impossible to distinguish the contributions of truly random events, such as gene mutations and natural disasters, from the deterministic but random-appearing effects of chaotic variation. One way to "separate the variables" is to construct a simulation. Reporting on an example of such evolutionary modeling by computer, McKee describes surprising results that seem to confirm the famous "butterfly effect" often cited in time-travel science fiction.
Although he underscores the inevitable roles of chaos and unpredictability, McKee does not ignore the feedback phenomena that stabilized evolution and drove it in the direction of increasing complexity. Natural selection and its companion forces, gene flow and genetic drift, are given a thorough treatment which includes cases where selection fails, such as accidental early deaths unrelated to genetic fitness. An entire chapter is devoted to the concept of autocatalytic (self-driven) evolution and its continuing importance as advanced species like H. sapiens willfully modify their environment and replace natural selection with artificial selection through social policies and medical intervention.
One of the book's most engaging chapters underscores the limitations of evolution, such as having to fashion every new model by tinkering nondestructively with an existing one (in contrast to supernatural design, which could start each species with a clean sheet.) McKee amusingly details some of the dubious orthopedic compromises involved in raising mammals from quadruped to biped status, freeing their increasingly articulated front feet to become full-time hands.
In "A Tale of Two Sites," the author gives a fascinating account of his fossil-hunting during ten years in South Africa. While the main thrust of the book is dedicated to helping the reader understand big-picture issues in evolutionary anthropology, a detailed description of McKee's inspirations and frustrations in field work adds depth and practical substance to the theoretical portions of the book.
I greatly enjoyed "The Riddled Chain" and believe it will both entertain and educate anyone wanting to learn more about the awesome and mysterious, but not miraculous, origins of humanity.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x92237e88) out of 5 stars Choas Teohry 26 Sept. 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Finally someone has written a book on human evolution that is different from all the rest. The Riddled Chain takes a new theoretical angle on human evolution. Much to my surprise, all that theory was quite readable and fascinating. Sure, McKee has some of the usual stuff about excavations and the sequence of fossils, but he does it with purpose without getting into a bunch of boring details. He also avoids the childish spats and name-calling that show up in so many human evolution books. What does McKee do? He gently guides you into some pretty heady stuff.
The trick is that you don't notice how deep you've gotten. Just when your attention and understanding start to flag a bit, he pull in some amusing anecdote to make it all clear and keep you reading with a smile.
His main point is that chance, coincidence, and chaos are important and necessary for evolution. He demolishes the over-simplified theories that climate change leads to human adptations such as bipedalism.
Instead he proposes that evolution is self-driven. Chance events such as mutations must coincide with chance conditions, and then leads human evolution in one direction rather than another. He applies chaos theory, which I never understood until now, to show that small events can have big, long-term consequences.
The book ends with a look at our future evolution that is both interesting and scary.
McKee says in his preface that he thinks science is fun. His book certainly shows that. You'll have fun reading it, and you'll never think about human evolution in quite the same way you did before.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x99a08ea8) out of 5 stars Thought Provoking Book 26 Sept. 2000
By Ronald E. Martin - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The writing of The Riddled Chain is fluid and easy to read, yet firmly seated in evolutionary theory. Most college biology courses spend an enormous amount of time studying these concepts and their effects. Luckily, you don't have to be in a class to enjoy this book.
McKee goes to great detail in explaining the most acccepted evolutionary theories so that anyone can understand them. He then clarifies what he agrees with and what he doesn't and how those theories relate to his own hypothesis of natural selection. For example, I enjoyed the section dealing with how giraffes' circulation systems adapted as their neck length grew and now I can easily explain this to my sons.
I found the final chapter extremely thought provoking because it not only dealt with the past, but the future. I highly recommend this book for anyone to read and consider.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x921259cc) out of 5 stars An excellent overview of evolution theory 20 Mar. 2002
By K. Dunlap - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"The Riddled Chain" is an excellent book for non-experts who wish to get an overall view of human evolution. I emphasize "human" because it does not go into any microbiology that might explain the evolution of first life. It does begin with the basic notions of human evolution; chance, chaos, and natural selection. McKee then devotes a large portion of the book to his own experiences in Africa digging, mostly fruitlessly, for early Hominids. Finally, he addresses some issues that evolution has, by his own admission, not addressed very well: such as the development of the human brain. In doing so he discusses autocatalysis, a concept new to me, as well as chaos and coincidence. He is an exceptionally good writer for a scientist. He uses analogies and examples that are very well chosen to clarify his points.
It is in his explanation of how it is (by his theory) autocatalysis, rather than natural selection, that accounts for many human characteristics that, in my opinion, McKee's explanation is not as complete as it might be. In his explanation of autocatalysis he almost implies that one mutation, e.g. the reduction of face size, causes another, e.g. increase in brain size. I know (I think) that is not what he meant. The changes are always the result of chance mutations. I believe he meant that the one mutation accommodates the other rather than actually causing it. However, I think it could be misread as a cause and effect relationship.
Reading from a physicist's view, I found that his concept of good science differed somewhat from mine. Speaking of a conference he attended, he makes the following statement:
"We were struggling to decipher fossil clues about how evolution works, or at least how it used to work..." "Sitting around a table for five days, we discussed and argued and thought, and changed our minds a lot. This was real science at its best."
Discussing, arguing, and changing people's minds is not my idea of science at its best. I seem to see more rationalism and less empiricism than I find acceptable in science. I realize that evolutionists do not have the benefit of being able to reproduce the processes they are studying as a physicist or chemist might. Nonetheless, intuition can never replace observation in science. Anthropologists seem to state their conclusions with a lot of certainty and authority considering the inordinate role played in their science by interpretation and intuition.
To McKee's credit, he is quite open in admitting that there is an almost inescapable tendency for anthropologists to "find what they are looking for" in studying fossils. At least he is aware that great care must be exercised in drawing conclusions from the generally ambiguous data anthropologists have to work with.
The last part of the book is devoted, unfortunately, to the claims that because of the actions of mankind species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. I say unfortunately because McKee does not do much to corroborate the accuracy of the numbers he uses.
I do not wish my view of the book to seem negative, however. Jeffrey McKee has written an understandable book on some very complex ideas. I enjoyed the book and learned much from it. I highly recommend it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x920f5870) out of 5 stars The Riddled Chain: by Jeffrey Kevin McKee 12 Feb. 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The Riddled Chain, by Jeffrey McKee provides the layman reader with insights into human evolution, fossil hunting, and scientific methods. In addition, the author provides novel explanations of the process involved in human evolution. He argues very eloquently and convincingly that chance, coincidence, and chaos have been the driving forces behind human evolution. These forces feed back on themselves, which McKee calls autocatalysis, driving blindly the whole process forward.
This book is written in an excellent prose, with enjoyable anecdotes that seem to express the good-natured personality of the author.
Anyone interested in human evolution, or the complexities of evolution theory should read The Riddled Chain. One does not have to be versed in biology, paleoanthropology, or the like to enjoy this book. The Riddled Chain provides an interesting thought provoking perspective into the process that lead to a fascinating and incredibly complex species, ourselves. Unless you have predispositions regarding how humans emerged, or with evolution theory itself, I bet you will not be able to put this book down.
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