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on 24 October 2005
This is a nice little book, very easy to read. While I was familiar with most of the factual contents, there are a few remarkable insights and claims that feel plausible. The basic tenets are based on archeological data on the size of the frontal lobes and the idea that the frontal lobe size has rough correspondence with the ability to understand recursive intentions. For example, while current humans seem to understand four or five orders of intentionality (sometimes six), chimps seem to be on the brink of understanding second order intentionality. That is, while we can understand that Alice believes that Bob thinks that Carol wants David to supposed that Eve imagines..., chimps can barely understand that Alice believes that Bob thinks.... Consequently, much of the evolutionary pressure behind brain growth seems to have been the ability to cope with in larger social groups. Another basic tenet is that language seems to have developed as a form of social grooming, and that is primary purpose is to act as a social cohesion force.
The chapter about religion (Chapter 7, last one) was perhaps to most interesting to me. Again, nothing very new, but nice insights, especially about the role of religion in allowing even larger societies to be built than with just language.
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According to Dunbar, our "Story" can only be told as a family record. Unless we better understand our relations we will never properly understand ourselves. His sweeping examination of various aspects of the living world shows us we have a special place, but not a unique one. Living creatures have many shared aspects of their lives. We need to study them more closely. The investigation, however, must be a more penetrating view than we've too often used in the past. The distinctions in behaviour in our nearest cousins in cages and in the wild are an indication of the needed effort. How much of our training chimpanzees is actually their manipulation of us? 'What is their intention compared to ours?' is a major theme.
Dunbar's writing is far from the pedant's academic style - further enlivened by some graphic examples and a few charts. Although most of this work is recounting research studies in field and laboratory, his descriptions of behaviour leave you feeling you've been watching with the observer. In setting each topic theme, he opens the chapter with a scenario from the past. One of our ancestors is participating in cave painting, preparing for the hunt or communing with spirits. These are events comprising the roots of our cultures.
The author shows how our construction of cultures resulted from a more complex [NOT "higher"] reasoning prowess. The complexity arises in our capacity to build and unravel "levels" of intentionality. From an individual's intention to act Dunbar takes us through the various levels to show how Shakespeare [to cite but one example] intended his audiences to comprehend the intentions of his various interacting characters. Although it is fairly common for humans to achieve five levels of intentionality, reaching the sixth is more than just a mental chore. Dunbar admits his attempt to surpass that grade ended in futility accompanied by an empty whisky bottle.
Even so, the fifth and sixth levels are what set us apart from our primate relations. This cognitive ability, coupled with our physiology, is what granted us speech - an unshared trait. Dunbar spends some time examining speech. The dispute over what constitutes "language" has been long and sometimes acrimonious. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't fully resolve the question, but provides sufficient detail to help the reader understand the issues. When, for example, do simple, silent gestures become a form of language? Dunbar has previously discussed the role of grooming in building communications abilities and expands on those ideas here.
As a concluding note, Dunbar examines the issue of religion - another aspect setting us apart from the other animals. Events, communicated to others, often leads to questioning cause. When the cause of an event cannot be identified, it becomes attributed to the supernatural and religion is born. So long as enough people communicate a common cause for events, religion becomes a cohesion factor in society - both informing and controlling one's neighbours. This alone requires careful understanding and manipulation of the orders of intentionality. Do we truly need religion in order to have a feeling of belonging in our community? This is but one of the challenging questions Dunbar poses. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 19 June 2013
Well written and should appeal to the interested amateur and academic alike. My copy was second hand with hand written pencil notes on every page, which detracts unfortunately from the printed text. I will not purchase second hand books from this retailer again.
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on 27 August 2010
I found this book a very good introduction to human evolution theory. All the ideas proposed were full backed up by research. At the beginning of each chapter was a "story" set in ancient man times. I never read any of these and the book was still insightful.

The final chapter discussed the truely unique thing about humans - his religious inklings. Other animal communicate and use tools. The writer showed how religious experience can be understood through brain imaging.

The most useful thing I found from the book is that human language is the ape equivalent of grooming. It allows us to "groom" very efficiently so we can live in larger groups.

I am not an academic, just interested in the topic.
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on 26 April 2016
Dunbar's several publications from his later 'Dunbar's Numbers' findings should not be allowed to overshadow this earlier, well-written, grounding study of the place of modern humans in primate evolution, which adds to the basic science his own speculations about the origins of language, arts and a balanced account of impulses to religious belief. Like the later 'social brain' work, the main theme is our species' great success through binding networks of affection and sociability, now threatened by opposed impulses.
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on 6 October 2012
Robin Dunbar is a professor of evolutionary psychology perhaps best known for Dunbar's Number (150) being the suggested upper limit of people with whom we can maintain stable social relationships. Sadly some of us never get to put this figure to the test.
The Human Story is his account of humankind's evolution. Each chapter beings with a brief sketch of an imaged event in the life of an ancestor, e.g. a cave painter, the australopithecines who left the Laetoli footprints etc followed by a chapter dealing with aspects of our evolution e.g. bipedalism, language, levels of intentionality (Shakespeare intended that we realize that Othello believed Iago when he lied about Desdemona being in love with Cassio), the origins of religion etc.
I found the work well written and accessible to the layman and his arguments largely convincing but perhaps an other expert would have a different analysis. As a layman one is relying on the expert's factual accuracy and I did spot one elementary error. On page 175 Ali is described as Mohammed's son. I would have thought that someone in the proofreading process would have known that Ali was Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law.
Sometimes an author has to write something that will offend readers but I do think he should be careful not to be carelessly hurtful. On page 94 we are described as beginning "as little more than a wet lump" and on page 97 we are told "the human pretty much an inert lump". Some people who will have read this book will have suffered a miscarriage and/or lost a baby. I doubt they though of their loss as a lump.Surely some more thoughtful language could have been used?
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on 29 August 2013
Dunbar gives fascinating insights into the evolution that humankind has gone through. Full of ideas, stemmed from the basis of research done on human history. Absolutely fascinating to read!
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VINE VOICEon 25 August 2009
The Human Story was a deeply disappointing book for me. Once again I was sucked in by the blurbs (Never judge a book by its cover; o how true!). They promised a very readable account of recent research into the evolution of human behaviour, language, culture and so on.

What is actually provided is a deadly dull leaden prose. It was so turgid that despite the comparatively short length I was completely unable to finish this book and it quickly found its way into the charity shop bag.

Some of Mr Dunbar's observations have merit, but it is difficult (in my case impossible) to wade through his prose to discover whether he really does have insights. In all it seemed like a really bad book which might be put on the reading list for certain first year psychology, anthropology or ethno-biology courses. I can't honestly think why anyone else would want to read it.

This is a great shame as the topics he covers are of vital importance to us all and it is easy to see why people may dedicate their professional lives to such studies. I just wish he could write in a more attractive less dense style and therefore make a truly popular science book.

Then again, maybe I'm just not bright enough.
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on 17 March 2013
An outstanding book!
As a great Portuguese writer once said, the difficult is not write a lots but with few words say a lot
Paulo Finuras
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