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Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our…

Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins (Macsci) (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Ian Tattersall

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1353088,991 (4.19)23
mcwetboy's review
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Ian Tattersall’s Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins can be read as a primer in human paleoanthropology, and is in fact useful on that level, especially for someone like me whose reading in the subject is several decades out of date. But it’s also a book-length argument that explores the question of why Homo sapiens, and not some other or predecessor hominid species, went on to take over the planet.

What’s the dividing line between bipedal ape and human? There is evidence of tool use, meat consumption and large social groups even among australopithecines; evidence of controlled fire and cooking goes back hundreds of thousands of years. Neanderthals had larger brains than we do. But none of these species dominated the planet in as short a time as we did. None of these species wiped out all other hominid competition; we did.

Tattersall argues that the development of symbolic thinking among a small group of Homo sapiens made the difference. Other hominid species, including Neanderthals, lacked the ability for abstract thinking, art, language or long-term planning and were cognitively limited, he argues, but so were early Homo sapiens. The development of symbolic thinking was a major cognitive development that allowed that group to spread very rapidly across the globe and displace every other hominid — other Homo sapiens in Africa, Homo neanderthalensis in Europe, and the remaining Homo erectus and Homo floresiensis in Asia.

This was quite readable and persuasively argued; I never once lost the plot. Tattersall has apparently published a number of popular science books on human evolution, but this is the first one I’ve encountered. I may have to track down the others.

http://www.jonathancrowe.net/2012/04/masters-of-the-planet.php ( )
1 vote mcwetboy | Apr 21, 2012 |
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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Human evolution and the origin of our specific species is one of those subjects which deserves an excellent author capable of presenting a complex and fascinating narrative for a non-scientific audience. Tattersall delivers this excellent summation of our current knowledge of those subjects in Masters of the Planet.

I read a lot of popular biology, evolution, and anthropology, and had a solid foundation from which to work when I read Masters of the Planet, but I was thrilled to find Tattersall's narrative very well constructed and the information he provided was easily digestible without losing the most interesting and complicated ideas. MotP is very recommended for anyone with an interest in the subject of the origins of our species.
  IslandDave | Nov 5, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Masters of the Planet is a well written account of the current state of paleoanthropology. Covering ground from the origins of the earliest hominids to the expression of language and use of abstract thinking, Dr. Tattersall tells a riveting story.
I must confess that much of what I took for accepted facts about human evolution were ripped apart in the space of two hundred pages.
I think this is one of those books that can spin you around and knock a new point of view into your head.

Read and be enlightened. ( )
  RChurch | Mar 29, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A little book that packs a big wallop, this work by Tattersall, a curator emeritus at the Museum of Natural History in New York, relates the state of our knowledge about the evolution of humans. Hint for the perplexed: It's true. Tattersall's conclusion is that the answer to the question "Where does humanity begin?" is at the point where language entered the equation - rather than bipedality, tool-making, or some other characteristic. ( )
  waitingtoderail | Mar 3, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Review of latest in early human paleontology, with emphasis on determining what factors drove human development toward increased intelligence and symbol using.
  ritaer | Oct 4, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
'Masters of the Planet' provides a very readable account of the search for the beginings of mankind. Using fossil and anthropological evidence Tattersall presents a time-lapse photographic view of human development. ( )
  LamSon | Oct 3, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
For anyone wanting to catch up on the current state of the study of human evolution, Ian Tattersall here provides an excellent survey of the field. He sticks close to the evidence, synthesizes tons of research, and clarifies speculations that are supported by evidence and those that are not. New findings are frequent news items, so reading this book will help put them into context.

A review from another member of the albanyhill household is here: http://probaway.wordpress.com/2013/09/27/masters-of-the-planet-by-ian-tattersall... ( )
  albanyhill | Oct 3, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A lot of scholarship went into this book, and there is certainly a lot of detail about the various members of the pre-human family. The author's style is a comfortable read, but overall this is a topic and a treatment for a very limited audience. As much as I am a history buff (yes, even a pre-history buff, having read many books about prehistoric migrations, cultures, etc.), I really got bogged down in the middle of this book.

I would have enjoyed more a focus on what changed from species to species that equipped them to lead to the final Homo Sapiens, and less detail on the discovery and morphology of individual bones and such.

Still, a topic which belongs at one end of a bookshelf of "History of Man". ( )
  calbookaddict | Sep 24, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
As the author said near the end of the book, "When it comes to Homo Sapiens, it seems nothing is simple". And that is even sort of an understatement.

This was an amazing book, but it took me so long to get through that I wasn't sure if I was ever going to finish it. (Quite the Tardis book, it seemed bigger on the inside than it was on the outside).

It's basically a history of what came before us on Earth, at least in regards to hominid species. He started with when our predecessors were still both in the trees as well as just starting to walk on two feet and upright. And went pretty much chronologically up through time. From the Australopiths to the slightly less than modern Homo Sapiens and then finally to us Modern Humans.

He had a ton of interesting points (and I really, really liked some of his turns of phrase, they were hilariously awesome at times), more than I'll repeat here since, y'all should read the book instead. But, I'll highlight a couple of my favorite ones. One of the points was that we can never really understand what the previous hominids who didn't have the brain to use/recognize symbols because it isn't just that they were us but dumber, their brains worked in an entirely different way, and we can't just turn off recognizing/using/etc. the symbolic part of our brain. (Just try. It doesn't even work with something simple like turning that off and not thinking of a cat, a generic or personal one when 'cat' is written.)

Also, I didn't realize that one of the theories about some of our fellow hominids was that our (and their) biological form came before our nice wrinkly symbol using brain.

The Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens stuff was great and I wish that we knew more about how the different species had interacted.

In the end I think I learned almost as much about the modern human bone anatomy as anything else, and I learned a ton about hominid history of course.

It was a very great book and by a guy who definitely seemed to know a ton about the subject that he was writing about (always a good thing). And, there was just enough interesting phrasing and prose like writing that what could have turned out horribly dry, while not a breeze to read (I blame the scientific names mostly) was a quite enjoyable read. ( )
1 vote DanieXJ | Sep 10, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book is ideally suited for those who have a strong curiosity about the state of our knowledge about human origins but do not have the time or wherewithal to delve through hundreds of pages of research data that would do it justice. The vast scope of the subject is artfully condensed into a form that is capable of holding the reader’s interest from cover to cover. The author succinctly but comprehensively presents an encyclopedic grasp of the subject. As a bonus, a peek is offered into the modern tools available to paleoanthropologists such as DNA analysis, means to identify isotropic evidence, electron microscopes and such.
Tattersall frankly admits to the dangers of building inferences from earlier inferences as well as frankly stating where there are disagreements among scholars and where there are gaps in the evidence. He is conservative in style and stops short when speculation gets too far beyond the physical evidence at hand. Several times he repeats the warning that we are burdened with an impossible task when attempting to overlay present cognitive capabilities on ancient beings without those capabilities.
There are times where I personally wished he would have gone farther but I acknowledge that it would alter the nature of the book and might be trite. I would like, for example, to have seen some discussion of the controversy (if it still exists) between the single-string versus multiple origin theories of evolution. Also, the question of whether modern man differs from both his near primate cousins and precursors only in degree but, more importantly, in type. There are times when Tattersall seemed to skirt close to those issues when he discusses the possibility that early man’s development outpaced the environmental stresses that have been assumed to have driven them. He suggests, for example, that early hominids might have become bipedal not because their tree swinging habitat was dwindling forcing them to survive on the grassland but that erect locomotion allowed them to exploit a wider range of existence.
Another area where the author seems to tantalize readers and to stimulate further research is his discussion of the evolution of pre-active behavior—carrying stones for the making of tools at a future time and place when and where needed, for example. This temporal awareness of past and future may well be the key differentiating factor that sets modern man apart. The extension of operational memory, a sense of the present, to encompass the time necessary for the development of language may be more crucial than Broca’s area of the brain and the structure of the throat and promises to be a fruitful area of future research.
Tattersall ends the book with an almost whimsical ‘coda’ that stands on its own as a meaningful essay and scientific ‘testimony’. It is worth the price of the book. It is a personal assessment of his relationship with his profession and presents his own value system. I offer kudos to him. ( )
1 vote WCHagen | Aug 31, 2013 |
First of all, Thanks to Ian Tattersall for the first-reads book!
This book was very informative. There was a lot of real information and speculation.
It was easy to follow and gave me a better understanding of the evolution of our species.
A definite must-read for anyone who wants to know about the orignins of mankind. ( )
1 vote rossbm | Aug 23, 2013 |
First of all, Thanks to Ian Tattersall for the first-reads book!
This book was very informative. There was a lot of real information and speculation.
It was easy to follow and gave me a better understanding of the evolution of our species.
A definite must-read for anyone who wants to know about the orignins of mankind. ( )
  rossbm | Aug 23, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Tattersall tackles some of the biggest and most controversial aspects of human origins including how homo sapiens dominated other species in the battle for survival. As an anthropologist, he reviews the fifteen other relatives of man and illuminates how mankind overcome the other species. One of the most critical of course is the interaction between homo sapiens and Neanderthals in Europe. Interestingly enough, the author does not argue that there was a long term evolutionary refinement, instead, the winning combination was a swift emergence, shocking fellow species. His point then would fuel the debate in favor of some overwhelming power--theists would argue God--that possibly intervened during the winning process. What cause could have jump started the effect to result in a sudden and dramatic change in the fortune of homo sapiens?

Tattersall does not deal with how ordinary persons or theology has dealt with the implications of jump staring with homo sapiens but it would have been interesting to understand his take on the controversy between creationists and standard scientific views of evolution. He rightly describes the uniqueness of humanity without really delving into the implications of that point.

The pre-homo sapiens species are fascinating in their own right. They are complex, yet, not human, and humans are fabulous symbol makers.
  gmicksmith | Aug 19, 2013 |
Mostly old news. ( )
  JohnJohnsonII | May 18, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Personally, I found this book to be very dry. However, as the subjects of paleontology and our human origins is a particular interest of mine, the book delves deep enough to make one want to read more on the subject. All in all, a good read for anyone interested in learning where we as a species come from. ( )
  jillbone | Nov 19, 2012 |
Subtitled “The search for our human origins” About 50,000 years ago there were several hominid species, mostly in Africa. The homo sapiens genus dominated and the other species became extinct. Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersal surveys the known fossil records, starting earlier with the australopiths, and moving into the latter species. His emphasis is that there is not a direct progression of changes towards homo sapiens, but several different species any one of which might have become dominant. The records are meagre; there are skulls, with estimated brain sizes to infer intelligence, and later there are stone tools, implying some planning and forethought. The manufacture of the tools becomes more complex over time. Tattersall is convinced that the feature that determines the success of homo sapiens is the ability to represent and manipulate nature using symbols. He searches the paleoarcheological record for definite use of symbols; these appear very recently, exemplified by the cave drawings in Europe. The artifact that seems to be the first clearly symbolic representation is an orchre plate with geometric carvings, found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa, from the middle stone age, about 77,000 years ago.
“We humans experience ourselves in a very specific kind of way - a way that is, as far as we know, unique in the living world. We are each, as it were, able to conceptualize and characterize ourselves as objects distinct from the rest of Nature - and from the rest of our species. We consciously know that we - and others of our kind - have interior lives. The intellectual resource that allows us to possess such knowledge is our symbolic cognitive style. This is a shorthand term for our ability to dissect the world around us into a huge vocabulary of intangible symbols. These we can recombine in our minds, according to rules that allow an unlimited number of visions to be formulated from a finite set of elements. Using this vocabulary and these rules we are able to generate alternative versions or explanations of the world - and ourselves.” ( )
  neurodrew | Sep 22, 2012 |
This book works like an executive summary for the discoveries in human evolution to present. It includes locations, dates, mistake corrections, scientific community concurrences and disagreements, and continued mysteries. The author's expertise and knowledge in the field of human evolutionary studies is evident in this story's simplified readability. The reader is not bogged down with extreme details to every discovery, but is given plenty of resources to continue interested research. This is a great complementary book for anyone interested in human evolution. ( )
  Sovranty | Sep 4, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Masters of the Planet provides an excellent overview of the current state of our knowledge of the evolution of humans and other hominids. Back in the 1960s, hominid evolution could still be viewed as unilinear and progressive, leading towards Homo sapiens along a single axis of evolutionary change. As outlined in this book, an impressive array of fossil finds and sophisticated technical analyses have yielded a very different picture, one in which diverse lineages of hominids existed simultaneously and interacted. The profusion of paleontological discoveries has buried the traditional creationist myth of "missing links." Indeed, the sheer number of fossils and structurally intermediate forms has sometimes made it difficult to determine which of the many candidates is closely- related to which.

Ian Tattersall, author of Masters of the Planet, is curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He brings to the issues a lifetime of expertise in hominid evolution, as well as abundant experience in writing books and articles for fellow scientists and general audiences. The book is organized historically, and traces the diverse and complicated history of hominids over the past 7-8 million years. Beginning with the ancient origins of the hominid lineage, it outlines the rise of bipedal apes, the variety of australopiths (including "Lucy"), life on the savannah, emergence from Africa (an event that occurred multiple times), the spread of early Homo throughout the Old World continents, the enigmatic Neandertals (distant cousins to ourselves, not ancestors – except to the degree in which we interbred), and ultimately, the arrival of modern H. sapiens. The book does not focus entirely on skeletal features. Rather, such aspects as development of social behavior, running ability, loss of body hair, diet, use of fire, and cooking all get their due. Tattersall's account leads towards recognition of the distinctiveness of our species, as manifested by language as well as symbolic behavior, features that he considers to be responsible for our species' success.

In tracing hominid diversity and evolutionary history, Tattersall draws on contemporary technological analyses to reveal details that would have been unimaginable a decade or so ago. Thus, readers may be surprised to find what isotope analyses have revealed about diets of early hominids, and what genetic analyses have shown about skin and hair color in Neandertals. Tattersall does not shy from recognizing unresolved issues and persistent controversies. He fairly presents alternative viewpoints, and freely acknowledges areas where a scarcity of evidence has rendered divergent interpretations viable.

As one who has read many books on hominid evolution, I found Tattersall's work to be interesting and informative. My copy is now replete with penciled comments and bent- down page corners to mark fascinating issues and controversial matters. While the book's dealings with uniqueness of our own species' overlaps that of Brian Fagan's recent Cro-Magnon, I found Tattersall's account preferable in some respects. The latter recognizes the emergence of artistic expression (starting at least 70,000 years ago) as a worldwide phenomenon rather than one local to Europe and Asia, in accord with its status as a species characteristic.

Notwithstanding my high regard for this book, it is not free of error. The hyoid apparatus is not a "bony portion of the Adam's apple" (as stated on page 36). Rather, the hyoid consists of thin cartilages that support the tongue and its musculature, while the so-called Adam's apple is the larynx. (How the two could be confused by a paleo-anatomist is most puzzling). "Exaptation" is wrongly presented as a non- adaptationist mechanism (pages 44, 68, and 210), in which features arise by chance and only later evolve to take on a function. Evolutionary biologists will recognize this characterization as mistaken. In exaptation, features that are evolutionary adapted to serve one function are transformed through natural selection to serve some new function (as outlined in Gould and Vrba's original 1982 paper in Paleobiology and throughout the modern literature). As another example, the author suggests that "members of the genus Homo have been consistently predisposed in the same way towards brain size increase"(page 132) since brain enlargement occurred in three separate lineages. However, one need not infer any special mechanism or attribute unique to our genus. A trend towards brain enlargement has occurred independently in many mammalian lineages, as well as in numerous linages of birds and cartilaginous fishes, and even among molluscs and arthropods. In this respect, hominids appear (with aquatic mammals) as an extreme example of a widespread evolutionary trend.

Some interpretations in the book are quite speculative, leading to weak inferences. For example, discovery of one toothless male skull (the Dmanisi specimen) is taken as evidence for long- term compassionate behavior among Homo erectus era hominids, on the grounds that the individual would not have been able to chew his own food. (Page 124: "…it seems entirely reasonable to conclude that the Dmanisi hominids had the cognitive reserves to express their fellow- feeling in the form of material support"). In view of the profusion of other interpretations, the inference is unnecessarily speculative. One might also question the book's central claim that emergence of artistic expression in our species paralleled the development of a unique form of psychology, as manifested in our capacity for symbolic thought. Fossils reveal little about psychology, and how early symbolic thought arose arguably is entirely a matter of speculation – cave art and jewelry notwithstanding.

Such issues do not detract from a work that, on the whole, is one of the best modern accounts available; indeed, some of the above manifests the fascinating and thought – provoking nature of this book. Overall, I would strongly recommend Masters of the Planet as an interesting and informative account of the diversity and evolutionary history of the bipedal apes and we their peculiar descendants. ( )
7 vote rybie2 | Aug 26, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I thoroughly enjoyed "Masters of the Planet" but cannot match some of the other reviews with respect to the science. I was nevertheless inspired and spent a lot of time thinking about each chapter. I was at the same time reading and enjoying Sebastian Faulks' brilliant novel "Human Traces" and at one point in the sweeping historical saga one of the characters visits the then "German East Africa' on a scientific expediton. They visit the famous footprints in the lava (actually discovered by Mary Leakey at Laetoli in 1978) but it is a thrilling story. After finishing the novel, I read the author's notes and acknowledgements and found that he thanked Professor Ian Tattersall at the Amercian Museum of Natural History and two other professors for assistance in this area.
Reading the 2 books together was an unexpected pleasure.
I am grateful to have received this book from librarything and it was an enjoyable update on new research in the area. ( )
1 vote bhowell | Aug 9, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A note about these newly posted non-link reviews.

This is another book that came my way via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program … a fact that I frequently have flogged in these introductory paragraphs, largely for the benefit if the FTC and other governmental busy-bodies. However, I'm starting with something new with this review, and that's including the “compliance” badge from CMP.LY … a service that lets bloggers make it clear when they've gotten a review copy, or other consideration (all the way up to being an outright paid shill for a company) via 16 different badges (see my previous post on the subject) ... and clicking on the "review" badge down below will take you to a page specific to my review of this book. It's a fairly elegant solution to a somewhat complex problem, and I anticipate using this on-going for situations where I've gotten promotional copies of stuff I'm reviewing here.

This book comes with a certain gravitas as its author is Curator of the Spitzer Hall or Human Origins at the famed American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and one would suppose that it is reflective of the most recent research, as it is only a couple of months old at this point. I suppose, then, that it's somewhat unfair of me to find myself wishing that Ian Tattersall's Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins was more engaging than it was.

This is not to say that the book is boring or “textbooky”, as it's not, it's just that it seems to take a very long time to get where it's going … of course, one could certainly argue that the hominid line itself took a very long time to get to current humanity too. As regular readers of my reviews my recall, as I read I generally put in little slips of paper to flag things I want to revisit, either choice bits to drop into one of these scribblings, or information that I want to follow up on. A book which really “grabs me” will have a forest of these sticking out of the top of the book, this had a scant few, and none of them appearing in the first 80% of the text.

My “take away” therefore is that the book spends the first 4/5ths setting up the key final bits. Obviously, in a survey like Masters of the Planet, the author can't necessarily assume that the reader is coming to the text with any in-depth knowledge of the subject (and I found that much of what I have read on the subject has, perhaps, been superseded by subsequent research), so there is a sense that Tattersall is having to fill in the first six or seven million years of hominid evolution as efficiently as he can, a challenging task given the very slim material that researchers have to work with.

It helps to keep in mind that in very many, if not most, cases, what evidence we have of previous hominids may be a leg bone here, a jaw there, a skull if we're lucky, with the occasional nearly-complete skeleton like Lucy. From these scanty remnants, the development of our species is conjectured across millions of years. What complicates matters is that it appears that, through most of that history, there were multiple “types” of hominids living in various niches. As we are used to being the only example of our immediate family extant in history, this is hard to get a hold of, but if you think of it in the way that there are many types of monkeys out there, so there were, at various points in time, multiple hominid lines existing concurrently. As you can imagine, this muddies the waters in terms of sketching out a lineage which leads to modern Homo Spaiens.

One of the things that Tattersall keeps returning to here is that, although these species were related, and similar to us in many ways, they were profoundly different. What qualitatively sets modern man apart from his predecessors and surviving more-distant relatives (the other great apes), is a hard-to-fossilize sense of symbolic relationship with the world. Even recent lines such as the Neanderthals, who may have even had larger brains than ours, don't seem to have had the level of symbolism which enables language and rich, rapid, cultural development. Tool-making preceded our species by several hundred thousand years but it, with few exceptions, stayed very limited, and “frozen” in form and technique generation after generation.

From genetic tracking, we know that the human genome is remarkably non-variant, with the entire of humanity having less variety than some chimpanzee populations in Africa. This suggests two things, that modern man is a very recent development, and that our population has been through some near-extinction “bottlenecks”. Both the genetic markers and geology point to the most dramatic of these being the explosion of Mount Toba in Indonesia some 74,000 years ago, which appears to have created a “volcanic winter” in which the hominid line that was going to emerge as modern Homo Sapiens was reduced in number to the extent where they all could have been seated in a large football stadium. The fact that the variation we see in humanity today came out of adjustments from that small pool of genes and in that short period of time is amazing.

The other thing that is suggested here is that, for whatever reason, there was a change in these hominids, and a part of the brain began to develop called the “angular gyrus”, which is large in our brains but small or missing in other primates. This is in an area of the brain which seems to exchange information in a new way, and may be the seat of symbolic thought. Once this ability to name objects and communicate the symbols was established, it allowed for the development of culture, and the spread of our kind across the planet (not by design, but by simply groups “expanding their range” by a mere 10 miles a generation).

Again, Masters of the Planet is a detailed over-view of the development of our species out of its assorted primate and hominid forebearers, but is far more interesting towards the end (which, I suppose, is a better “arc” for a book than the opposite!) … although this, admittedly, could just be my reaction to the material here. As one would expect for a brand-new book, there aren't many inexpensive options out there, although the on-line guys currently have this at a fairly substantial discount. As it's only been out a few months, your odds of finding it in your local brick-and-mortar book vendors are pretty good. If you're “into” paleoanthropology, or looking for an up-to-the-moment look at the current models of how we got here, this is certainly recommended.


A link to my "real" review:
BTRIPP's review of Ian Tattersall's "Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins" (1128 words)
2 vote BTRIPP | Jun 17, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
In the beginning, Ian Tattersall presents us with a common situation: a human staring into the eyes of a chimpanzee. He reveals more details, since the chimpanzee is in a zoo cage and the human is a Victorian. What happened afterwards were an inter-species collision and a descent into the Uncanny Valley. The Victorian, once comfortable in his status as a member of the ruling class of a global imperial superpower, now had his belief system shattered in this one brief moment. How different are we than chimpanzees? Masters of the Planet: the search for our human ancestors, by Ian Tattersall, seeks to answer that question. Along the way, he confirms the existence of hominid descendents who roamed the planet millions of years ago.

Written in a jaunty, descriptive manner, Tattersall traces the story of human evolution back to its roots. But make no mistake, this isn’t a simple rehash of paleoanthropology, this book includes information on the latest discoveries. Additionally, Tattersall gives the reader a kind of historiography of paleoanthropology. Unlike other branches of archaeology, paleoanthropology possesses a peculiar history. Our most recent ancestors, the Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal, were discovered first, sometime in the 19th century. “Lucy” and our earliest hominid ancestors were discovered as recently as the 1970s. On a few years ago, earlier specimens were discovered, along with the Homo florensis, the “Hobbit” species, complicating what was once perceived as a linear and progressive evolution from one hominid species to another. At the beginning of the book, Tattersall provides a chart showing all known hominid ancestors. It doesn’t look like one of those progressive charts with the chimp leading to the caveman leading to modern man. Tattersall’s chart is, in a word, arborescent. Hominid evolution had many branches, a few dead-ends, and a scattering of outliers. The field of paleoanthropology is now locked in heated debates over how one species is related to another species, or if one is a sub-species of another. And once a debate is settled, scientists doing field work discover another cache of specimens. The book does a good job summarizing the present state of the field of paleoanthropology and the specific cases where interpretation is still very much “at play.” (For those interested in further reading, Tattersall provides a generous bibliography of primary and secondary sources and sources pertinent to each chapter’s subject matter.)

The writing, while aimed at a popular audience, can get a little technical and clinical at times. Rest assured, the terms and subjects discussed are given ample contextualization, making it easier to understand. The book reads like a National Geographic or Learning Channel special, at least before both channels became devoured by reality shows about animal hoarders, storage wars, and whatever else TV executives can dream up between stealing ideas from European programs and scoring coke money.

Tattersall makes a series of bold assertions in Masters of the Planet. In his quest to discover what makes us human, he posits several theories: bipedality, brain size, and language. It is with language that he sees the cause of what makes us human and how we came to dominate the planet. The capacity for language is based on the concept of understanding symbolic representation. This quantum leap in cognitive functioning put Homo sapiens far above other competing hominid species. The cognitive leap also occurred relatively early, at least in terms of evolutionary time, roughly 60,000 years ago. By harnessing language, we could name things and make paintings and count and numerous other tasks we take for granted.

Masters of the Planet is a fascinating book exploring the always controversial field of paleoanthropolgy. Tattersall succeeds, not only in re-affirming and explaining previous work in the field, but also changing this reviewer’s perception of human evolution. Evolution is a given, but the archaeological record, the latest discoveries in both fieldwork and genetics, and compelling gift for storytelling make Tattersall’s work as a must-read for those wanting to know more about how we got here.

http://driftlessareareview.com/2012/06/07/masters-of-the-planet-by-ian-tattersal... ( )
3 vote kswolff | Jun 7, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

When I was young, one of the book sets my parents owned was the Nature Library series put out by the publishers of Life magazine. One of my favorite volumes in that series was Early Man, for the time a reasonably accurate presentation of the story of human evolution. That understanding is probably best exemplified by the "march of the hominids" contained on pages 41-54 of Early Man showing a fairly linear progression extending from Pliopithecus through the Australopthicenes through Homo Erectus until it reaches modern Homo Sapiens. Although the depiction shows a couple of side branches, such as Oreopithecus and Panthropus, the overall thrust is of an orderly progression as one hominid evolves, holds sway for a period of time, and is then replaced by a successor species.

But even at that time, the story we had uncovered was not exactly linear, and the plate found on pages 74-75 of Early Man reveals this as a pair of advanced Australopithicines face off against a small band of Panthropus males - an imagined scene in which two hominid species are sharing the Earth and occasionally confronting one another. This image was fascinating to my young mind, and stuck with me ever since I saw it so many years ago. And in Masters of the Planet Ian Tattersall explains that over the last fifty years or so new discoveries have deepened our understanding of human evolution to the point where this scenario seems to have been more common than the present state in which a single hominid species stands alone. Rather than a trunk leading inexorably to us, hominid evolution seems to have been a bush, with many competing branches, in which all the others either died out (or possibly were pruned by our ancestors), leaving Homo Sapiens as the sole survivor.

In Masters of the Planet Tattersall lays out the fossil discoveries that have fueled our current understanding of the history that led to the current dominance of our species, along with the conclusions that have been drawn from those discoveries. The author walks the reader step by step through the history of anthropology, although because the oldest fossils were unearthed most recently, this tour is given in reverse order, with the most recent archaeological finds presented first and working backwards to the discoveries of the first neanderthal fossils in the nineteenth century. Through the journey through the fossil record, Tattersall explains the conclusions scientists have drawn from these artifacts and explores the various speculations engaged in when the available data is inconclusive. Most importantly, Tattersall explains the conclusions that previous evaluations of the data (which, at the time was even more incomplete than the incomplete picture we have now) led to, and how and why the general consensus has changed since that time.

The underlying theme of the book, as one might guess from the subtitle "The Search for Our Human Origins" is to explore exactly what makes us "human", and an attempt to determine at exactly what point in our evolutionary history we stopped being pre-humans or proto-humans, and actually became fully recognizable as human. Building his case on studies of our closest living relatives, the physical structures revealed by the fossils of our ancestors, and some faint traces of evidence about how those ancestors lived, Tattersall sorts through the various signature features that have been advanced in efforts to define what makes a human a human, and attempts to evaluate the points at which those traits may have arisen, and whether those traits are, in fact, the critical defining characteristics of our humanity. By the end of the book, the current picture of human origins is filled out, even though that picture, based as it is upon the fragmentary data that has made it through the eons to us, is blurry. It turns out we are not so much inevitable, as we are simply the strain of hominid that got lucky and outlasted its relatives.

What Masters of the Planet shows brilliantly is that while dimwitted creationists and "intelligent design" advocates are obsessing over irrelevancies like Piltdown man and trying to get their fairy tales into high school curricula, real scientists are ignoring their inanities and keeping busy doing actual work to uncover our true origins. And the picture they have uncovered, although more chaotic and confusing than the previous orderly progression from an ape-like ancestor to us, is also more interesting and most critically, more accurate. While there is nothing in this book that one could not have found out elsewhere, this book compiles all the material into one place so it can be seen as a whole, and the interconnections can be made readily apparent. Anyone interested in human origins will find this book both engaging and illuminating.

This review has also been posted on my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds. ( )
2 vote StormRaven | May 24, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Masters of the Planet provides a comprehensive discussion of human origins: "a chronological account of the long and astonishing process whereby our ancient ancestor, an unusual but not particularly extraordinary primate variation, became transformed into the amazing and unprecedented creature that Homo sapiens is today." [26]

Paleontologist Tattersall amplifies the fossil record in interesting ways: comparative linguistics and neuroscience research on emergence of symbolic thought; morphological and genetic analysis into hominid speciation; isotope analysis indicating transition from herbivore to omnivore; evidence from head lice & pubic lice suggesting the point at which we humans lost our body hair.

Tattersall argues that like any other genus, hominids fielded many species over time, and at various stages of the evolutionary period there were several hominid variants competing for food, possibly borrowing techniques, perhaps even interbreeding. Despite gaps in the fossil record, this overall picture is clear until the emergence of H. sapiens. He speculates multiple species were biologically equipped for the transformation into modern humans, but only one did and it was a cultural event which triggered the emergence of the symbol-using human. Memorably, he imagines children playing games who stumble onto the prospect of language, and that it quickly spread among a small H. sapiens population in Southwestern or Eastern Africa. It seems likely the development of language provided a comparative advantage in an ecologically demanding period and proved key to becoming the sole surviving species of hominid. And that perhaps is the most sobering fact of all: many (most?) genuses have multiple species, but modern hominids do not, we humans are the only surviving branch of the hominid family tree.


Theme of hominids as generalists: each species came onto scene and did what other hominids had done for hundreds of years, though perhaps better. Key was the ability to adapt to new ecologies / competition / threats from predators, no "killer app" specialty allowing a given species to dominate until H. sapiens: language use reinforced the generalist advantage before it provided a wholly novel approach to existence.

Tattersall's speculative scenario channels Bateson, suggesting Lamarckian inheritance isn't entirely rubbish, though not as Lamarck postulated. That is: a cultural (behavioural) innovation proves so advantageous as to be widely and swiftly adopted, and ensuing use of language (no matter how rudimentary) precedes physiological and neurological development in the brain. How does learned behaviour become encoded into ontogeny? Perhaps cultural adaptation selects those with the mutation for brain size & organization, and further mutations within that subgroup build upon the trend. At the same time: learned behavior (language) is passed on via culture among this group, so a small & contiguous population is requisite. Tattersall notes rate of human evolution after this point was unprecedented in hominid (perhaps all) history.

The species is not a single lineage, and most of the hominid species I learned in elementary school are, in fact, not our precursors but competing species, now extinct. My mistaken idea of a single lineage was propagated by paleontologists themselves, partly out of academic infighting and the discipline's inferiority complex.

Humans replaced all other hominid species: raises possibility we humans did not merely adapt more successfully, so much as intervened in evolutionary path of other hominids, co-opting food supplies / shelter, perhaps even aggression. Some interbreeding was possible, and perhaps early on this exhange of genetic material was significant for eventual species; Tattersall claims it was not a crucial element in later evolution such as may (or not) have occurred between neanderthals and Cro-Magnon or humans.

Evolution is no longer relevant to H. sapiens as a species in the way we typically understand it due to our huge population size, and the central role of culture in survival.

Tattersall examines the evidence suggesting hominids became omnivore (once we were herbivore as many primates remain) due to the nutritional / energy demands of our larger brains. Simply put, brains are perhaps 2% of body mass but require 25% of our caloric energy, and it simply isn't practical to get that from plants as hunter-gatherer (ie pre-agriculture). Animal protein is more complex and supplies the necessary nutrients in more efficient forms, but early on our metabolisms were not able to digest without cooking food, so controlled fire became a crucial innovation alongside brain expansion. One sobering implication is the role of cannibalism as "gastronomic habit" not "acute necessity", in certain circumstances. ( )
  elenchus | May 21, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Masters of the Planet attempts to determine at what point in history traits that would come to define homo sapiens appeared and developed. With a fossil record not nearly as complete as we'd like it to be as well as clues in geographically distant locations but far apart chronologically, there is still an awful lot of guesswork involved.

Tattersall takes on a tour through the earliest hominids, from the first apes to stand and walk on two feet, to early branches of the hominid tree where our form and function began to take shape, to the neanderthals and the dominance of modern homo sapiens. We see the evidence, sketchy as it is, how and why hominids developed into omnivores. We not only see our brains grow, but why only certain areas matter. Finally, the difference maker is not so much physiological as it is intellectual. The difference between the brawnier, larger-brained neanderthal and Cro-magnon man was the ability to attach symbolic importance to objects in the world around them. This fueled further, faster brain development -- faster than in any other time over the course of our evolution.

Now that humans have adapted to nearly every terrestrial ecosystem on the planet, the agents of change that steered the evolutionary train that led to us has pretty much derailed. Small changes might give important advantages in small populations and make a species more agile to environmental changes or in migrating to new niches. Those pressures no longer apply, and with 7 billion of us, it's unlikely that a new and improved man is going rise above the rest of us monkeys. However, that doesn't mean we still aren't evolving; the changes though won't be as outwardly apparent.

Tattersall's writing style is a little dry. Stretches of Masters of the Planet can be tedious for those not already well-versed in the subject. I consider myself fairly well read on anthropology; there were some new things I learned to be sure, but I had to read carefully and think about the implications of what Tattersall wrote as he leaves most of his conclusions for the last few chapters (which I thought were the best written in the book). ( )
1 vote JeffV | May 16, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This was a lovely overview of the state of our knowledge of human origins. Dr. Tattersall has summarized many intriguing findings spanning the range from the radiological evidence of the diet of our Australopithecine predecessors to the advent of symbolic thinking in our immediate forbearers. Personally, I would have been happy with greater technical focus, but this was an immensely readable telling. I recommend it without hesitation for the reader seeking a broad but intriguing account of our coming to be who we are as a species. The writing was quite up to the task. Bravo! ( )
1 vote stellarexplorer | May 6, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is an excellent overview of where paleontology is now in understanding the origins of modern humans. It comments on some of the many controversies without getting bogged down in them, readily admitting the gaps in our knowledge. In fact, the author insists on not jumping to conclusions and presenting conjectures as exactly that. It has been some 20 years since l last visited the subject and I was impressed by the progress and the discoveries that have been made over that time. ( )
2 vote snash | Apr 29, 2012 |
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