Friday, 28 February 2014

The Accidental Species – Henry Gee *****

* UPDATED * to include paperback
This is one the best popular science books of the year, so I feel a touch of regret that it has been published by an academic press. Don’t get me wrong, Chicago University Press has done an excellent job with it – the book is a thing of beauty – but there are two ways this can get in the way of a wide readership. One is that people might be put off because academic books tend to be stuffy and dull. This one isn’t. And secondly because of pricing. Initially it was a hardback selling at £18 with no discount, for what is quite a slim book. (The Kindle version is a lot cheaper.)
Thankfully it's now significantly cheaper in paperback because I want lots of people to read it. In fact I’d go so far as to say that a copy should be given to every 16-year-old. Not because it’s aimed at younger readers, but because this is the best book I’ve ever read for putting evolution into perspective, and for giving a real understanding of the nature of the fossil record and what it can and can’t tell us, not to mention explaining the power and limitations of science.
Henry Gee shows eloquently why the concept of a ‘missing link’, while attractive to journalists, is just wrong – along with those popular drawings that have an apparent evolutionary progression from an ape-like creature, through a cave man, to a modern person. With the enthusiasm of someone who knows his bones firsthand, Gee tells us about what we do know from fossil remains, particularly in early and pre-humans, but also about the huge gaps. He explains clearly and precisely just what evolution is – and what it isn’t. And he gives short shrift to creationists who have in the past quote-mined his books to give ‘evidence’ of how ‘even evolutionists’ say that evolution is wrong. As Gee makes clear, evolution is inevitable, not wrong, it is just when we misunderstand its nature or try to read more into the fossil record than it can tell us that we can misuse evolution. (To demonstrate how easily quote mining can be used to give a message that is totally contrary to the writer’s intent, Gee points out that taken in isolation, Psalm 14, verse 1 (second half) reads: ‘There is no God.’)
There is only one aspect of the book that I disagree with. Gee spends the last few chapters picking out characteristics that you might think of as unique to human beings and showing that there are other animals with these characteristics. His aim is to show that humans are not special. His reason for doing this is good. He wants to emphasise how we make a mistake if we think in some sense that humans are the ‘pinnacle’ of evolution or that evolution has been in some way directed to create better and better creatures, ending up with us. As he demonstrates very clearly in the rest of the book, this is a total misunderstanding of the nature of evolution. And there is plenty of fascinating stuff about animal abilities. But I do think he throws the baby out with the bathwater here, as humans very clearly are special.
I think there are two ways the book gets this wrong. One is to assume that ‘special’ means ‘unique’ – which it doesn’t. So, for instance, he argues that our technology doesn’t make us special as some animals and birds make use of tools, for instance using a stick to poke into a hole to get to insects. But this is a very limited way of looking at things. I can run, but that doesn’t stop Usain Bolt being special. I can pick out a tune on a keyboard with one finger, but that doesn’t stop a great concert pianist from being special. In almost every comparison made, human beings are orders of magnitude different from every comparator, and as such certainly are special.
I would also say there are clear examples where humans have done things that goes beyond their built-in biological capabilities that no other organism can do. What other species can build technology that requires an understanding of quantum theory to design it? Or see something happening on the other side of the world, or billions of light years out in space? Or enjoy stories written by someone they’ve never met and make use of the thoughts of a member of their species who died hundreds of years ago? Or decide to take a trip to the Moon and make it happen? Humans are both unique and special. Not the pinnacle. Not the last word, or a target – but special nonetheless.
I don’t find this disagreement a problem, because this is the sort of book that provokes thought and that should inspire discussion and debate. And even without those last few chapters this is an excellent piece of popular science writing. You may think there was nothing more to say about evolution, but The Accidental Species proves that there is – and wonderful stuff it is.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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