Jonathan Marks’ new book is called “Tales of the Ex-Apes: How We Think about Human Evolution”
I’ve got to tell you that when I first saw the title of this book, the letters played in my head a bit. Tails of the Ex-Apes. That would be funny because apes don’t have tails. Or Tales of the Exapes. Pronounced as you wish. Perhaps in an Aztec accent.
Jon Marks is a colleague and a friend from way back. He is a biological anthropologist who has engaged in critical study of central biological themes, such as genetics, and he’s said a few things about race. He wears black, often does not shave, and has probably been a member of the Communist Party, or at least, taught a class or two on Marxist Theory. So, a book by Marks on “how we think about human evolution” (the subtitle) is not going to be about human evolution, but how we frame questions about human evolution, and how the process of unraveling answers to these questions revel our own biases. Dialectical stuff. Like that.
In the book Jon says interesting things about basic anthropological theory, thought, and key touchstone figures and topics like Darwin and kinship. On the more biological side of things, species, adaptations, gene trees, and phylogeny. The destructive core of the book is an anti-reductionist critique of evolutionary theory and the constructive core of the book is an bio-cultural argument as it applies to doing anthropology, as well as how it applies to the human (or just prehuman?) transformation to a self considering sort of sentient being that bothers to write books about the process of asking questions about itself. Humans are a product of lived experience, but not just that. Humanness is the product of the sum of human’s cultural history. And, actually, science, which is an important human thing, does not escape that framework, something I probably agree with (^^see the subtitle of my blog^^). Marks writes,
… we see the human species culturally. Science is a process of understanding, and we understand things culturally. We hope that we can observe and transcend the cultural biases of our predecessors, but there is no non-cultural knowledge. As a graphic example, consider the plaque that was attached to Pioneer 10 … Why was NASA sending pornography into outer space? … Because they wanted to depict the man and woman in a cultureless, natural state. But surely the shaves, haircuts, and bikini waxes are cultural! As are the gendered postures, with only the man looking you straight in the eye. In a baboon, that would be a threat display; let’s hope the aliens … aren’t like baboons.
And so on. Like that. Great book.
If you are teaching a course in human evolution, you might seriously consider using this as a second reading because of the critical treatment of material surely left unexamined by your textbook. Also, it would give the students a fairer sense of what they are in for if they chose Anthropology as a major, for better or worse. This is not introductory material, but the prose would work for any college student. Also, the text is well footnoted.
The book will be out any day now, scheduled for September. Available in various formats, very much worth the read.