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Makes some good points, some flawed points
on September 9, 2011
This book starts by challenging the popular theory that humans moved out of Africa in one big wave, killing all other competitors as they went. And that's where they author goes wrong. He makes a caricature of his opponents, claiming that they believed in an inherent superiority of the human species and nothing else mattered. Now there may well be anthropologists who believe that. But there can't be many educated ones who do. It's not that simple. There were multiple waves and geography matters. As did chance. That is Finlayson's argument, but it gets tainted by his overzealous challenge to what appears (to me) to be a straw man argument. Beyond that, he makes a few errors of his own. So let's look at his main points:
1- Ecology played a major roll in human evolution. THE major roll. Well, that's what I would expect from someone who has spent his life studying ecology and fossils. Or at least someone who did that and never bothered to read much else. Of course ecology matters. Humans never would have evolved in the early Triassic when oxygen levels were low, or if Africa was covered in ice by some freaky ice age. Of course the availability of habitats made an important difference for humans and neanderthal alike. But the environment is only part of the story. I think common flies are pretty happy pretty much no matter where they end, as are cockroaches. Where humans equally adaptive generalists? Certainly. So variable ecologies was probably a strength, not a weakness for humans. Why it wasn't so for neanderthals is not well spelled out here. The author repeats the "dogma" that they were too big and clumsy to adapt to new environments at the same time as he argues that they were superb generalists in their environment and perhaps just as smart as humans. So why didn't they adapt like humans?
2- Chance matters in evolution. D'uh. But opportunity requires taking advantage of it, and again, this isn't well explained.
3- Because the author relies on a faulty metaphor based on a single study in Spain (probably a friend's research). In it they found that wealthy families survived better than poor ones other than years of severe drought, when the poor families, used to surviving on very little, showed lower mortality rates. So it's those under stress who are the best innovators claims Finlayson. The best able to adapt to shifting environments. That's certainly quite a leap to base an entire book on a single correlational historical study! Here's the two problems with it. Besides the obvious problem of perhaps that one paper isn't representative of people as a whole, there is no indication that the poor people survived because they were better innovators. Their bodies were simply conditioned to exist on fewer resources. Not only that, but there's no evidence it was a genetically-related quality, meaning there's no evidence on whether it's evolutionarily-relevant or not. That's the first flaw. The second is that the poor people, over time, will be swamped out by the rich people's descendents during good times, wiping them out completely. The Native Americans were much better survivors than the Europeans who invaded them, yet the wealthy Europeans could afford to throw over more and more descendents as they had such a large surplus of resources. The concept of genetic sinks is one that the author needs to explore in greater depth.
4- Human inventiveness wasn't anything special. The author, in an effort to combat the extreme view that it was everything takes the equally silly view that it (human intelligence) was practically meaningless compared to the forces of ecology ad chance. He offers the absurd example that remote islands could have been colonized by humans arriving there on driftwood from storms! He gives as evidence the fact that small monkeys have done that and that a man drifted for 2 weeks after the big Asian Tsunami. That's well and good, but monkeys require much less debris, and the man was literally in an ocean of floating debris. Trying to imagine the requisite family of humans being washed out on some natural raft is just absurd. Why deny their sailing ingenuity? He also talks about rapid shifts from plains to forests, claiming that small thrown spears don't work in a forest. Big thick thrusting spears do. That must be news to a lot of bow hunters around the world!
I got the very strong impression that Finlayson is largely ignorant of a lot of literature on human and hunter-gatherer behavior. Certainly, he consistently underestimates the requisite ingenuity of ancestral humans as well as the importance of genetic pumps and genetic sinks. These two flaws deeply hurt his thesis. So while I'm sure that ecology and chance did play significant roles in human evolution, I'm equally sure that population genetics and ingenuity played an equally large roll. So I recommend this as an interesting book to read, with the aforementioned caveats in mind, making it a three and a half star book in my view (so I went with three to be conservative). The story of human evolution is fascinating as it evolves itself as new evidence appears. Finlayson offers some very interesting evidence about ecology and chance, but ironically, he falls claim to the very extremism he claims to oppose. Our story, like ourselves, is almost certainly much more than just right place at the right time.