Ancestral Roots: Modern Living and Human Evolution

To lose our negative evolutionary baggage we have to go back to our roots, discovers Alan Bilsborough

January 29, 2009

Depressed by the credit crunch, negative equity, the world situation or simply the RAE results? If so, this volume will help you set such ephemeral concerns in perspective.

Its basic theme is the not unfamiliar contention that the evolutionary pressures that moulded hominid evolution and enabled our success as a hunter-gatherer are maladaptive for 21st-century urban living. The result, in Timothy Clack's words, is that "we - as a species - have found ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time". And if we don't understand the evolutionary basis of our aggression, our selfishness, our excessive consumption and our associated propensity to degrade and destroy our environment, then we will have no chance of modifying our behaviour and will be well on the way to hell in a handcart.

Much of the book is given over to an accessible account of human behaviour from a predominantly sociobiological perspective. For those of us getting long in the tooth, there are echoes here of the books by Robert Ardrey and Desmond Morris, fortified with a strong dash of more recent evolutionary psychology.

But Clack extends his range well beyond most other accounts, taking in mental health, lifestyle and "affluenza", as well as the usual subjects of rivalry and aggression, mating behaviour, sex and reproduction. So, for example, increasing levels of global obesity result from the fast-food industry exploiting our capacity to gorge ourselves, itself a consequence of a Palaeolithic appetite evolved to cope with lean times as well as good, while pornographers make money pandering to a voyeurism evolved to enhance the Darwinian fitness of savannah-dwelling hominids. Rising levels of mental illness, stress and anxiety follow from our alienation and isolation in urban contexts when evolution has adapted us as hunter-gatherers for small-group living, with the intimate social bonds and personal links that such societies promote.

Despite more than 350 pages documenting this baleful evolutionary legacy and our culpability in destroying our environment and potentially ourselves, Clack nonetheless sees some hope for us. The adaptive flexibility afforded by culture, with the regulatory benefits of the social contract and the behavioural norms it generates, confer the capacity for us to break with "our negative evolutionary baggage as the Rapacious Ape" and shift towards a new order in which we "consume less, produce less waste and preserve natural habitats". This, of course, rather undermines the theme of evolutionary determinism that otherwise dominates the book. Clack, on the other hand, isn't wholly confident that we'll see sufficient sense in time, and his final thought is the hardly consoling one that if we are doomed to self-determined extinction then our species duration, while short, will certainly have been exciting and unusual.

Given the range and complexity of its subject matter, the book would benefit from some imaginative illustrations. As it is, there are a few rather poor-quality photographs, some of which - such as a container ship complete with containers, and the road sign for a Nevada brothel - bear only tenuous relation to the text, and seem to have been included purely for the sake of including them.

Overall, Ancestral Roots is a fluent and wide-ranging account of the human condition viewed from an evolutionary perspective, although the author's preaching sometimes obtrudes to interrupt the flow. The text suffers from the selectivity of all such eclectic accounts, and there are sufficient errors of detail in the bits I think I know something about to make me wonder as to the accuracy of those I don't. In other words, read this book as a stimulating and engaging survey, but don't take it too seriously as a definitive diagnosis of our current predicament.

Ancestral Roots: Modern Living and Human Evolution

By Timothy Clack

Palgrave Macmillan

408pp, £15.99

ISBN 9780230201828

Published 14 November 2008

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