- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Penguin UK (March 29 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0140294813
- ISBN-13: 978-0140294811
- Product Dimensions: 11 x 1.6 x 18 cm
- Shipping Weight: 136 g
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #3,455,687 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
First Chimpanzee Paperback – Mar 29 2001
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About the Author
JOHN GRIBBIN is the author of many popular science books in Penguin, including the highly acclaimed 'In Search of...' series.JEREMY CHERFAS is a biologist and award-winning science writer.
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Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
Tradition dictates that descriptions of human origins start out with fossil evidence. Until the 80's, paleontologists argued that man had been evolving separately from the apes for at least 20 million years. In 1967, molecular evidence was presented that stated the separation was more like five million years ago. This evidence was based on the molecular clock.
Mutation is a random process as is decay of Carbon 14 or argon. While you can never say which nucleotide will mutate, or which C14 atom will decay to C12, you can accurately predict how many of the millions of letters in our genetic code will change in a given amount of time. Whether it's carbon atoms, argon atoms, or nucleotides, their constant rates of change give us a clock, superbly explained in Chapter 4.
The authors think this clock is vastly superior to fossil evidence for timing. The scientific documentation is convincing, further evidence is there anytime you need it, and its conclusions fits the fossil evidence. The molecular clock does NOT agree with the paleontologists' interpretation of the evidence. In the last 35 years (with generous goading by the molecular clock) the fossil jocks have steadily shortened their time frame from 20 million years ago to around six million years ago. Meanwhile, the molecular geneticists have decreased theirs even more to 3.6 million.
I don't know who's right, but this book is fascinating, is particularly clear for a book on hard science, and has plenty of important information about the relative reliabilities of paleontology vs. molecular genetics. The authors are redundantly critical of mainstream science and paleontologists for not giving molecular genetics its appropriate credence all these years. To add a little flair, they have a unique interpretation of the Australopithecus/man/gorilla/chimpanzee family tree.
"First Chimpanzee" is exemplary for the science-impaired reader because it spends considerable remedial time on basics - DNA, for example - yet the more advanced reader will not be disappointed in its depth. I encourage you to read the other two excellent reviews of this fine book and agree that Chapter 8 - "People of the Ice" - is an exceptional essay. You would have to search far to find a better explanation of how the earth's cycles and the changes in the earth's crust have created ice ages.
In Search of Schroedinger's Cat, by John Gribbin, was a brilliant book on Quantum Physics, but the same cannot be said for his book on human evolution.
It's clear that this book hasn't been updated since it originally came out, despite what the description said, because this book contained some glaring mistakes, which is the reason why I couldn't finish it.
This book claims that most mutations are harmful, while very rarely they are either neutral or beneficial, when in fact it has been a known scientific fact for years that most mutations are neutral, while most of the rest are deleterious and the remainder beneficial.
But when he then repeats the common (and incorrect) claim that the amount of human evolution fossils could fit onto a dining table and all the fossil teeth fond into a couple of shoeboxes that I couldn't take it. To be fair, fossil teeth are tiny and you probably could fit thousands into a couple of shoeboxes, but the claim that all human evolution fossils could fit onto a dining table is ridiculous, unless the table was meant to seat a hundred people and was piled as high as it possibly could be with no thought to organise the bones.
Given the author's previous book I was delighted with this chance find, but an apparently interesting quick read just turned into the propagation of common myths.
Most folks who are familiar with geology are also aware of a class of dating techniques ubiquitously lumped together under the label of radiometric dating. Carbon 14 is, perhaps, the most commonly known of these, but there are many other types as well.
The authors explain relatively early in their book the basic idea behind radiometric dating, which is the quantum-mechanically observed fact that, in a group of unstable isotopes there is a particular percentage that, on average, will decay to their daughter products in any given period of time. Specifically, in the half-life of the isotope, half the atoms will decay.
Radiometric dating provides a means of accurately determining the age since formation of many different types of materials. Carbon 14 is one isotope that is useful for dating samples that were once living, but are now dead. Other, longer-lived, isotopes can be used for dating various types of volcanic rocks. What Gribbin and Cherfas have done in "The first chimpanzee" is show how a similar technique can be applied to sequences in our genes.
Early in the book the authors introduce the reader to DNA and the genetic code. They also have one of the best introductory explanations for what it actually means - in terms of laboratory testing and results - to say that this or that species share X amount of their genetic code. Wrapping up this discussion is the rather humbling, remarkable (and, upon reflection, expected) result that humans and chimpanzees have almost all their genetic material in common. As they carefully explain, genetic sequencing has reached the point where very specific statements can be made regarding the differences in the genetic makeup of different species. For example, according to Gribbin and Cherfas:
"We now know from multiple lines of evidence that genetic similarity between us and chimpanzees is 98.4 per cent, and that's pretty exact. It's not 98.3, and it's not 98.5 but is 98.4 per cent."
This means that chimps and humans are more closely related to each other than to any other species. We are their closest evolutionary relative, and they are ours. We are more closely related to chimps than rats are to mice. Indeed, we are as closely related to chimps as horses are to donkeys. Chimps are more related to us, than they are to gorillas.
Upon laying this introductory groundwork, Gribbin and Cherfas proceed by showing that two species that descended from a common ancestor start out with identical DNA, which then (in the process of speciation) drifts divergently but at the same rate. This means that, once the rate of the molecular clock is determined, the genetic differences between species can be used to reliably date the point at which they diverged from their most recent common evolutionary ancestor. As they word it in their book:
"The number of accumulated differences tells the time since the two species became evolutionarily distinct because mutation is a random process, as is the decay of a radioactive element, and while you can never say exactly which nucleotides will change, or when, you can say with some confidence how many of the millions of letters in the human genetic code will change in 1,000 years, 100,000 years, or a million years."
This is really the crux of the book, and they deliver it on page 115. The rest of the book is aimed at illustrating additional details that highlight the application of the theory, especially regarding the relationship between humans and chimps. In the process they give examples and evidence that provide the scientific backup for the assumptions and data that go into the analysis, and the results that come out. They show, for example, several ways to calibrate the molecular clock, justifying assumptions for common rates of mutation in related species, and illustrating how the results from molecular dating are in nice agreement with the strict evidence from the fossil record (though not necessarily in agreement with assumptions made about the fossil record).
Some of the material is a little specialized, and the authors clearly are speaking, at times, to skeptical colleagues. Just the same I was able to easily follow the text, and I personally found this book interesting, full of information, and possessing a significant "Ahhhh" factor.
Their conclusion (found on page 283, but reiterated many other times in earlier parts of the text) is that:
"The origin of the primates cannot have occurred more than 75 million years ago; the primates of the New and Old Worlds diverged no more than 35 million years ago (comfortably agreeing, by the way, with geophysical evidence for the break-up of the former super continent); Old World monkeys split from the hominoids no more than 20 million years ago, and the modern ape family began to radiate approximately 15 million years ago; gibbon and orangutan diverged 11 and 8 million years ago and finally (ignoring the more recent divergence into pygmy and modern chimp, mountain and lowland gorilla) there was the three-way split between man, chimp and gorilla no more than 4 million years ago.
For anyone interested in evolution, and human evolution in particular, this book is essential reading. It's clearly written in a way that most non-scientists, with careful reading, should be able to follow, and it has sufficient detail to interest the scientific non-specialist as well. For me it was a wealth of new information and yet another reminder of our connectedness with nature.