Skip to main content

The Eternal Child – Clive Bromhall *****

This is simply one of the best, most riveting popular science books we’ve ever seen. At first sight, Clive Bromhall’s book is revolutionary, but before long it’s difficult not to think “but it was obvious, really” – one of the strong indicators of a great theory. Along the way it explains many of the oddities of the human ape. I’ve often walked my dog over rough terrain, through thistles and nettles, and envied the protection of her coat – it just doesn’t make sense that we’re practically hairless. As runners (to get away from predators or catch prey) we’re absolutely feeble. We can’t even outrun a rabbit. And then there are the behaviours of our species like homosexuality that seem to run counter to natural selection. What’s it all about?
Bromhall argues powerfully that most of our oddities (compared to other apes) as a species are just a side effect of staying in an infantile state. Our lack of hair, upright stance and much more is typical of a newborn ape, rather than a mature one. And all of this, he suggests, is because as our predecessors moved from the safety of the trees to the savannah they needed to be able to function as a large group to survive. Chimps, for instance, just couldn’t do this. Get more than about half a dozen together and you end up with a bloodbath as they fight for position. But infant apes are more cooperative, and most of our strange looks and behaviour seem tied in to this essential survival requirement to be able to function in large groups.
The book is wonderful, partly because it explains so many things that didn’t make sense before, and partly because Bromhall writes in an engaging and entertaining way.
There are a couple of flaws. He can’t resists getting into a sort of infantile version of a personality profile at the back of the book, dividing humanity up into four different types. This is quite unnecessary, distracts from the main message, and makes the book’s ending the weakest part. He also, very occasionally makes wild leaps of logic that don’t seem based on sense. For example at one point he suggests that the Christian cross may be derived from a mother goddess symbol. This is a bit like suggesting the London Eye’s logo is derived from a sun god symbol, because it’s disc shaped. Er, no, it’s because the London Eye is circular. Similarly, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the Christian cross is the shape it is because that’s the shape of the Roman instrument of execution used on Jesus. To look for more complex explanations smacks of having a theory and trying to make the facts fit. However this criticism doesn’t apply to any of the main parts of his thesis, so doesn’t change the impact of the book.
Be warned, also, that quite a lot of the book is about sexuality, so it may not be appropriate for younger readers.
Even if you aren’t the sort of person who normally reads anthropology or “where did we come from” type books, it’s worth giving this a try – it’s a gem!
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…