Book Review: Masters of the Planet by Ian Tattersall

If you have been following my blog for a while, then you might know that I’m becoming a bit of a fanatic for paleoanthropology. The study of human origins has taken over my bookshelf, and I’ve found myself daydreaming about going back to human origins exhibits in museums. This is easy to do each time I get really lost in another book on the topic. This time, that book was Ian Tattersall’s Masters of the Planet.

I know that I started this blog as a way to talk about my thoughts and experiences as a budding atheist, but like everything does, my journey is evolving. For the time being, I feel more interested in paleoanthropology than atheism, even if this blog is named for the latter. But human evolution enthralls me, and I feel that it should be talked about more. So I hope you’ll excuse me if I talk about this far more than I ever have before. But hopefully, I can convince you that it’s a fascinating topic worth talking about.

I mean, this is the study of where (and what) human beings came from. If you’re not satisfied with “dirt” as an answer, then how can you not thirst for a better one?

I first got hooked on paleoanthropology (“paleo” meaning ancient, and “anthropology” meaning the study of humans) when I read Don Johanson’s Lucy. This is also what hooked Lee Berger about the field, which I learned when reading his own book, Almost Human. I loved reading about the drama and quirks of paleoanthropology from both of these books, which tell the stories of the discoveries of three hominid species between them.

But with the human evolution section of my bookshelf growing at what feels like an exponential rate, I knew I should take a step back and learn about the academic side of the subject before I got into more biographical work. Enter Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins by Ian Tattersall, the curator of the American Museum of Natural History’s Spitzer Hall of Human Origins. Tattersall has been involved in paleoanthropology since the 60’s, and his book combined his undeniable expertise with just enough of his own evidence-based opinions and a dash of wit.

A bird’s-eye-view of this book would show you that Tattersall is taking us on a straightforward journey through the timeline of hominid evolution, starting around seven million years go. At least, it’s as straightforward as our messy, trailing bush of a family tree can be. He included as many of the major players as were known in 2012, and thankfully, he introduced me to several species that I had only ever seen in various evolutionary trees but had never known about in detail.

As spotty as our fossil record is, Tattersall was able to paint a pretty intriguing picture of how Homo sapiens came to be, and like any good scientist, he was intellectually honest with the reader about anything that we don’t yet understand very well. Throughout the book, you could tell that he has a handful of ideas that he really wants the reader to remember, because we have always been taught human evolution in a certain way that Tattersall finds far too simple. Some of these salient ideas include:

1. None of the other hominid species should be viewed as a variation of something we’re already familiar with. Australopithecus afarensis wasn’t just an advanced ape, and the Neanderthals weren’t just a failed version of Homo sapiens. They were all unique species of their own, living in unique environments with their own lifestyles, diets, and cultures in order to survive.

2. There is not necessarily a correlation between the evolution of a new species and the creation of a new kind of technology. In the past, paleoanthropologists tried to classily their fossils as Homo habilis, or the “handy man”, because this species is attributed to being the first to use tools, but Tattersall refutes the entire idea. First of all, stone tools were used at least two million years ago by australopiths. But more than that, Tattersall argues that almost the entire habilis fossil record includes mis-classified australopith fossils that were not human at all. Many people tried to make the genus Homo stretch back much farther than it realistically does, as a means of holding on to that outdated picture of human evolution as being a linear progression of triumph over our ancestors.

3. We didn’t gain the ability to walk upright as a means to any end. You can speculate all day about whether we began walking so that we could see over the savanna grass, hold our babies, or make tools. But we didn’t walk with the intention of doing anything. Evolution doesn’t have a goal in mind. According to Tattersall, the only reason why hominids would have begun walking was because it felt like the most natural thing to do—and they logically must have already had the physical ability to comfortably do so. This gets into some genetic and biological technicality that goes a bit over my head, but a good explanation for this can be found in the idea of punctuated equilibrium.

Many evolutionists, including Darwin and Huxley, and Dawkins and Gould, disagree about whether evolution ever happens in a great leap in which the switching on of one gene can trigger several others, so that a species could undergo a great change in a short time. (Please correct me if I am wrong here!) Tattersall argues that this idea may help to explain the beginnings of revolutionary things such as the birth of bipedalism or speech.

There was a lot more fascinating information in this book, including some thought-provoking insight into the lives of Neanderthals and early modern humans (although I became a bit squeamish to learn that there is some evidence of cannibalism among Neanderthals and other early human species).

After reading Masters of the Planet, I feel more prepared to go further into studying more paleoanthropological discoveries. As a matter of fact, Tattersall intentionally focuses only on the ideas in the field and not on the people who conceived them, or discovered fossils, unless necessary. He says in the beginning, “Since trying to interpolate the history of discovery and ideas in paleoanthropology would inevitably have interrupted the flow of the story, I have tried to avoid it whenever possible.”

But Tattersall knew that excluding the drama, the mistakes, and the biases would leave us with only half a story. After all, the most human element within the very field of anthropology is that anyone studying it has the inevitable chance of projecting their own view onto it. This leads to mis-classification, petty drama, and even hoaxes. That’s why I’m so excited to waste no time as I dive headfirst into Tattersall’s next book, The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack and Other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution. The academic side can be fun, but the whole story includes all the messy trial and error that comes with being human.

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