Review: “Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness”

Ian Tattersall, paleoanthropologist par excellence, was the first person to make me feel that I had any grasp of evolution. I read his book on human evolution, The World from Beginnings to 4,000 BCE, in my Senior year. To have a subject so long obscured finally begin to clear (I say begin because to this day I am still baffled by evolution.) was a nearly miraculous moment in my high school life and I feel utterly in debt to Dr. Tattersall.

My fear when I started his 1998 book, Becoming Human, was that I’d placed Dr. Tattersall on a pedestal so high up that this book would be a let down. My fear upon finishing Becoming Human was that my admiration for the writer would cloud my judgement when it came time to write this review.

I really, really liked Becoming Human. Reading it felt like I was attending a marathon lecture from Dr. Tattersall. Written with an informal tone that conveys the subject with clarity and makes the material accessible to the layperson. A longer, more detailed account of human origins than The World from Beginnings to 4,000 BCE this book looks through not just our evolutionary history but what makes us human.

Part of why I’m such a fan of this book is the fact that Dr. Tattersall doesn’t just lay down THIS IS EVOLUTION AND HERE’S WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED. Rather he acknowledges the fact that evolutionary history is not so clearly defined and always tempers his statements with reminders that much of what we know could change at any moment with some new discovery. Another reason why I think this book is ace is the way in which Dr. Tattersall brings up theories that he doesn’t truly agree with. He presents major theories in modern paleoanthropology and then explains why he does or doesn’t think highly of them.

[Brief side note: One of the theories that Dr. Tattersall presents is evolutionary psychology. In gripping and destructive detail Dr. Tattersall disembowels most of evolutionary psychological theory. I’ve never been so happy in my life.]

Evolutionary theory is important. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s the truth or a bunch of hogwash but it’s a major topic in our cultural discourse and that makes it important. As a citizen it’ll behoove you to bone up on your human evolution knowledge. You’ll definitely stop asking the question, “If humans evolved from apes then why are there still apes?” You’ll stop asking this question because you’ll realize that this question makes ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE.

Anyone looking for a comprehensive but accessible introduction to human evolution should probably check out this book. I don’t know how much of it is outdated at this point and I can’t guarantee that you’ll become an amateur expert but you’ll definitely end up with some facts that’ll make you seem super smart at your next party.

Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness; Ian Tattersall; Harcourt Brace & Company, copyright 1998

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