Skip to main content

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.

Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Jim Baggott - Four Way Interview

Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He trained as a scientist, completing a doctorate in physical chemistry at Oxford in the early 80s, before embarking on post-doctoral research studies at Oxford and at Stanford University in California. He gave up a tenured lectureship at the University of Reading after five years in order to gain experience in the commercial world. He worked for Shell International Petroleum for 11 years before leaving to establish his own business consultancy and training practice. He writes about science, science history and philosophy in what spare time he can find. His books include Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb (2009), Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ (2012), Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields (2017), and, most recently, Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (2018). For more info see: www…

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…