Crows and jays.

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Author: Raymond Corbey
Date: May 23, 2014
From: TLS. Times Literary Supplement(Issue 5799)
Publisher: NI Syndication Limited
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,468 words

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Henry Gee


Misunderstandings of human evolution

224pp. University of Chicago Press.

18 [pounds sterling] (US $26).

978 0 226 28488 0

Thomas Suddendorf


The science of what separates us from other animals

368pp. Basic Books. 19.99 [pounds sterling] (US $29.99).

978 0 465 03014 9

In the past few decades, a cascade of discoveries of fossils, behavioural traces and genetic connections has helped to cast more light on human evolution. We now know that, only 50,000 years ago, at least four human species lived on this planet: Homo sapiens, Neanderthals. Homo floresiensis, and the mysterious Denisovans from Siberia. Some of these met and mingled. All in all, about twenty hominins (humanlike species) from the past 7 million years are now known.

Equally exciting and confusing is the proliferation, in sync with these discoveries, of scenarios for human cognitive and behavioural evolution. These put emphasis on, variously, features such as innate cognitive faculties, gene-culture co-evolution, hunting, fire and cooking, sexual selection, altruism, the energetic costs of brain tissue, cultural niche construction, violence, and several aspects of language.

Such scenarios come in two flavours. Some authors, like Thomas Suddendorf, stress the special status of present-day humans. Others, like Henry Gee, as can perhaps be expected from a palaeontologist-biologist, seek "to explode" it, as he writes. He sees no gap but continuity with other species, both diachronically and synchronically. The grand parade of hominin species, and that of life on earth in general, suggested the same thing to Charles Darwin, in whose view "the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind".

The two books under review interpret and weigh the available data very differently. Most of the data regards animal cognition and communication, of which Gee gives a rich and Suddendorf a much leaner account.

Henry Gee is a prolific writer and Senior Editor of Nature. As such he handled the first publication of many palaeoanthropological finds, including the baffling Homofloresiensis, that miniature, archaic, but also, paradoxically, very recent hominin from Indonesia. The Accidental Species can be read as a tribute to the late Stephen Jay Gould, the famous American palaeontologist who championed contingency. Evolution, Gee concurs, has "no...

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