Fossils à la mode

Principles of Human Evolution. Second edition
February 27, 2004

Human evolutionary studies now encompasses such wide-ranging subject matter that accounts confined to simple narrations of the fossil record no longer suffice, while the pace of discovery creates a continuing demand for clear, balanced introductions to the subject. This book's authors - an expert science communicator and a researcher who has had a major influence in broadening theoretical perspectives on human evolution - form a dream team to guide us through the subject's complexities.

This much-expanded second edition of an established text differs from its predecessor and virtually every other treatment in its range and its emphasis on principles, whether of evolutionary theory, phylogenetics, behaviour, ecology or comparative frameworks. Whereas most accounts condense such fundamentals into an abbreviated introduction before homing in on the hominid fossil record, this book dedicates some 200 pages, or about 40 per cent of the text, to the subject. The approach is to view human evolution as exemplifying general evolutionary forces and processes that impact on hominids as on other species, not to treat human evolution as a one-off case for which issues of evolutionary dynamics, adaptation, ecology and so on have little, if any, relevance.

The book is impressively broad in scope, well organised and clearly written. Key issues are flagged up, with questions alongside the text to serve as prompts. Alternative interpretations are accurately summarised, with a balanced commentary and sufficient facts to indicate each argument's basics without overloading detail. Each chapter ends with a "Beyond the facts" box summarising a current issue and its underlying concepts to stimulate further thought.

There are reasonable illustrations of important fossil specimens and excellent diagrams that greatly clarify issues of theory and interpretation. An associated website promises further resources.

I would have welcomed rather more coverage of the fossil evidence; on the other hand, there is a very clear pr?cis of genetic data bearing on modern human origins, and an excellent account of cognitive and behavioural aspects of human evolution.

The book is aimed at the US market but will find many takers this side of the Atlantic among anthropology, archaeology and evolutionary biology students. Inevitably, some aspects will quickly be overtaken by new discoveries. The website, if developed, will help here, but minor obsolescences matter little compared with the book's great strength, which is to provide readers with an accessible, secure and comprehensive conceptual framework for human evolution, within which they can make sense of new developments.

Alan Bilsborough is professor of anthropology and pro vice-chancellor, University of Durham.

 

Principles of Human Evolution. Second edition

Author - Roger Lewin and Robert A. Foley
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 555
Price - £29.99
ISBN - 0 632 04704 6

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