Notes on “Monkey in the Mirror”

18 05 2007

In preparation for my posts about Zinj and Hesperopithecus, I took out nearly every book the New Brunswick Public Library had on paleoanthropology, hoping to educate myself about a field that I have to admit I am not very familiar with. Among the various volumes, I picked up a copy of Ian Tattersall’s collection of essays entitled Monkey in the Mirror, figuring that it might prove to be a good primer for what I might learn later. Unfortunately, although I made a valiant effort, I had to put the book down 80% of the way through.

Tattersall’s book starts off with a frank, although awfully generalized, view of what science is and what it should be about; the different between discovering and describing different aspects of the natural world and the search for “truth.” What bothered me most about these passages was his NOMA approach to the intersection between science and religion, merely mentioning that the two do not need to conflict, but not expounding on the topic further. While I wasn’t expecting a treatise on atheism or science v. religion like the spate of recent books by some prominent englishmen (among others), some more explanation as to why human origins and religion don’t conflict would have been helpful.

The rest of the chapters touch on the current uncertainties surrounding paleoanthropological studies (and surprisingly little is mentioned about extant apes or monkeys in general), and while I admire the fact that Tattersall wants to be honest about the state of things circa 2002, the book drags. Shortly after putting his book down I picked up Carl Sagan’s Billions and Billions, and even though I utterly despite math I am actively interested and enjoying the book’s opening chapters. Such is the mistake often made by scientists writing “popular” works; data, observations, and generalities or merely presented to the reader rather than engaging the reader, as if in actual conversation with them. It might be a little difference, but a conversational tone goes a long way when it comes to the attention span of your readership, and while Tattersall may wish to make science accessible in his book it doesn’t mean the reader will want to access said knowledge in the 200+ pages of the book.

Which brings me to another point, one that I think is vitally important when it comes to popular science books. USE ILLUSTRATIONS! In Tattersall’s book there is merely one, a tentative tree showing human evolution over the past 2 million years or so using skulls/skull fragments. When he discusses the different sort of bipedalism “Lucy” exhibited, there’s no diagram. When he describes stone tools and their use, there are no drawings. When he mentions various skeletons or famous skulls, there are no pictures or depictions. Maybe this is all fine and well for the initiated, but what of the casual reader who the book is (I would assume) suppossed to illuminate? Throwing in a picture or drawing here or there doesn’t somehow cheapen or degrade a book, and scientists would do well to recognize when a good illustration would be helpful.

Tattersall also breaches the subject of “evolutionary psychology,” although he presents something of a straw-man version of it. I’m not a fan of selfish gene-esque views of evolution myself, but Tattersall makes it seem as if evolutionary psychologists are reccomending that it’s ok for people to rape or employ eugenics. I’m not terribly familiar with the field, but there is a big difference between recognizing rape (or forced copulation or whatever else you want to call it) as a reproductive strategy likely employed by some of our ancestors and actively endorsing it; recognizing a behavior and its effects is not the same as actively endorsing it, and I would be utterly shocked if I saw any self-respecting scientist make the conclusion that if such behavior occurs in nature, it must be allowable for us, too. Just because something occurs in nature does not make it ethical or moral or correct behavior (and despite this another straw-man argument used by creationists is suggesting that evolution leads to homosexuality, murder, etc.), but we should recognize the world for what it is, not how we wish it to be. Should scientists keep their hands off controversial subjects like rape as far as it’s concerned as a behavior and its history? I don’t think so, and studying how that despicable behavior emerged (and why it is still with us) will not obligate us to turn a blind eye to it either.

Like I’ve suggested, I still have much to catch up on when it comes to evolutionary psychology and other current debates, but I don’t think that were are merely machines controlled entirely by genes any more than we are entirely products of whatever environment we grew up in; there is a vital interplay between “nature” and “nurture” and figuring such an exchange out is certainly fascinating. There seems to be a fear that if we somehow go too far when it comes to reductionism, we will lose part of ourselves or what it is to be human, but this will only happen if all of humanity agrees that they are merely slaves to their genes, automatons living only to breed. I do not anticipate such an outcome, and we shouldn’t fear trying to unpack why we behave the way we do or what behaviors we inherited from our ancestors.

The closet of Homo sapiens is chock full of skeletons; the remains of those we had at least some role in exterminating, be they Neanderthals or species less-closely related to us like the dodo, tasmanian tiger, or moa. Ignoring our capacity (even tendency) to destroy other forms of life would be utterly foolish, so why then are some so reluctant to come to grips with the idea that mankind does not always live up to the moral standards that are in place today? If our ancestors raped, murdered, and pillaged, does that somehow cheapen our own existence or suggest that such behaviors should be allowable?

Again, I don’t believe this to be true, and recognizing how we came to be not only in body, but in mind as well, is something that is greatly important to understanding ourselves. We might not like what we see, a “monkey in the mirror”, but that does not mean we’re obligated to revert to past patterns of behavior or stop trying to coexist with members of our own species in addition to the rest of life on earth. “Civilized” man is often capable of some of the most despicable acts imaginable (with no more than a push of a button, these days), but if we can at least begin to recognize where such proclivities or behaviors come from can we not then use that understanding to try and turn away from our more brutish aspects? Surely the human mind in its current state did not suddenly show up out of nowhere as if an act of divine will, it evolved as our bodies did, and I think we’d be greatly misguided to say that the behaviors of our ancestors have been fully exterminated in our own minds.

In any event, I really wish I could say I enjoyed Tattersall’s book, but in the end I slogged through most of it out of hope that I was reaching something better towards the end of the essay series. While some bits and pieces of it are of value, on the whole it’s a general book that often makes assertions in terms of the philosophy of science that desperately require more discussion. At first it would seem odd that our closest evolutionary relatives would be so clouded in mystery, but upon further reflection it makes sense; it is difficult to speak it of a relative or to truly know the objectively, and everyone seems to have their own take on Cousin Lucy and Uncle Neanderthal.


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