Brief thoughts on The First Human

Even though I still have less than 100 pages left to go, I thought I would share a few thoughts about Ann Gibbons' recent book The First Human (specifically since Pierce asked for my thoughts on it). I do have a few criticisms, but outside of a few minor points of contention the book is highly enjoyable and serves as a good primer for anyone interested on catching up on some of the major discoveries of fossil hominids in the last two decades.

Prior to a class about African prehistory last fall I had never heard the names Ardipithecus, Orrorin, Sahelanthropus, or Australopithecus anamensis, and if such names are unfamiliar to you as well then Gibbons' book is a good place to start. "Lucy" (Australopithecus afarensis) casts a long shadow over paleoanthropology despite her small size, but I am glad that Gibbons spends plenty of time on important discoveries that have yet to penetrate the public consciousness.

The First Human is a vividly-written nonfiction page-turner; even though I knew much of the story already Gibbons' technique of weaving summaries taken from popular books with interviews & meetings with paleoanthropologists keeps the narrative from getting bogged down. Her anecdotes about how journals like Nature reacted to discoveries of fossil hominids is particularly interesting (Gibbons, after all, has covered paleoanthropology stories for Science), and the author definitely makes the most of her experience as a science journalist.

Parts of the book are slightly marred by repetition, however, as in the common restatements of the commanding presence of Richard Leakey in the public's perception of paleoanthropology. While this technique might be helpful to people without much (or any) previous knowledge of paleoanthropology, such short sections are like little bumps in the road for those who are more well-acquainted with the discipline. Speaking as such a person, I was disappointed to see Robert Broom get such short shrift in the book, especially since he did so much to try and support Raymond Dart during a time when Dart took a break from paleoanthropology. Likewise, Dart's later hypotheses about "murderous ape-men" and the South African caves go essentially undiscussed, an oversight that I feel is unfortunate.

I was also disappointed to see the textbook cardboard surrounding Eugene Dubois carried on. As is usual, we are told that he became so distrustful and paranoid that he locked away "Java Man" (Homo erectus) for years and would not let anyone see the fossils. It is true that Dubois was wounded by reactions to his discoveries, but during the years that his fossils were hidden away he did a lot of work on the correlation between brain and body size. These studies would be key to his attempt to keep "Pithecanthropus" as a human ancestor by saying that it looked like a gibbon. Rather than being an acknowledgment of defeat, Dubois knew that if his discovery had the body form of a gibbon it would have a larger brain size compared to body size than if it had the body form of our species, and by reshaping "Java Man" Dubois felt that he had defended the place of his discovery as a transitional form.

Such errors are unfortunate, but they do not necessarily detract from the main theme of the book; the race to find our earliest ancestors. This book is about scientists more than it is about the creatures that they seek, and while the picture that emerges is somewhat different from the classic National Geographic imagery the intense rivalry between researchers is a pervading theme. No particular group is favored and everyone comes out with some amount of mud on their faces, especially researchers who worked before some of the ethical standards now in place became accepted. There is certainly more to paleoanthropology than what is recorded in the book, but ideas about our earliest ancestors have changed so much so quickly that it is impossible to avoid the conflict and controversy surrounding the topic.

My criticisms aside, The First Human is a well-written and entertaining book that I have certainly enjoyed. Gibbons is a gifted writer and she aptly covers the complicated tangle of discovery and argument surrounding some of the most important discoveries of fossil humans in recent years. If you are generally unfamiliar with paleoanthropology the book serves as an excellent starting point, and it is certainly entertaining enough to keep the attention of people who are already familiar with the discoveries described within it. Unless the concluding chapters radically change my mind, I certainly recommend the book and think it is an excellent choice for anyone's summer reading list.

[Update: I just finished the book; aside from a minor error involving Hesperopithecus the last chapters were certainly enjoyable. I was expecting there to be more (I can never quite keep track of where things are going to end when I'm enjoying a book), but the work comes to a comfortable conclusion.]

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I'm reading the Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Evolution right now. It's only 175 pages and I've got about 50 to do.

In it there's a photo of what Lucy probably looked like. I know some religious fundies want to place her as more human but it's clearly an ape face.

Thanks for this review.

Got any recommendations for the lay dabbler regarding a paleoanthropology book "about the creatures that they seek more than it is about the scientists"?

(That said, Bravo! for Gibbons and her colleagues who bring science to the people without succumbing to ideological distractions.)

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

Tony; What fundies want to place Lucy as more human? From everything I've seen they say A. afarensis was an ape and nothing else.

Pierce; It's difficult to come up with good books because most of what I've learned has come from papers, conversations with grad students, and a few courses. Even so, there are four books that might provide you with a good place to start.

1) The Last Human - This one is new and I think of it of a companion volume to the recent AMNH exhibit that features a lot of the same reconstructions.

2) From Lucy to Language - The photography alone makes this a must-have sort of book. A revised edition (the one I linked to) has just come out so it should be reasonably up-to-date.

3) Antecedents of Man - It's old, but I was really impressed by this book. Some of it is a little out of date but it provides an engaging and easy-to-understand overview of primate evolution and morphology, as well as some good evolutionary insights.

4) Human Evolution - This one is essentially a text book that just recently came out, but it provides a good overview of the current state of paleoanthropology. It might be best to read some of the more popular books first before getting into this one, though.

The problem with any book on paleoanthropology is that it's almost immediately outdated by the time it comes out. Right now is a hectic time with lots of different "factions" holding different views of human evolution, and so things can get a little complicated (it takes a lot of literature chasing to stay up to date). Still, I think the books I listed here provide a pleasant overview and remain enjoyable even as their contents age.

Brian -

Four more titles for my "to-read" list - muchas gracias!

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink