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Thinking Big - Clive Gamble, John Gowlett and Robin Dunbar ****

When I was young, my main exposure to popular science was through my Dad's collection of Pelican paperbacks, where academics expounded on the likes of animals without backbones or some archeological wonder such as Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb or Schliemann's adventures uncovering Troy. On the whole I preferred the archaeology titles, as they tended to have more of a story - but when I read Thinking Big, I was plunged back into that world.

The topic helps - we've got a combination of archaeology, palaeontology and psychology here - but there's also something about the feel of the book. The authors are generally rather serious about what they're doing, there's that same small, finicky print and the reader does have to work reasonably hard to get much out of it.

Part of the difficulty is that the thread of the book is quite meandering and the underlying science sometimes feels distinctly vague. At the core is the 'social brain hypothesis' - the idea that the size of the brain (or to be precise, certain aspects of the brain) is correlated to social group sizes and that the story of the evolution of homo sapiens is driven strongly by these social group sizes and their implications.

The reason the science can seem vague is that inevitably there is a lot of hypothesising going on here. Apparently many archeologists don't like the approach taken and prefer to adopt a WYSWTW - What You See is What There Was - mantra. The trouble with this is that it is guaranteed to be wrong, where the approach taken by the authors only might be wrong. the WYSWTW fans simply deny the existence of anything in prehistoric society that doesn't leave concrete remains. But you can't find a fossilised belief, a mummified song or the remains of a conversation - so this leaves their picture of the life of these early hominins and humans that is very sparse and boring.

The alternative approach taken in this book is to accept that there was more going on than will leave remains and to try to make deductions from how developing brains will, for example, be able to deal with more levels of intention (I know that you are aware that she is lying, for example) and will be reflected in different group sizes, with the significant implications these will have for culture. Throw in how factors such as religion, music and language can also impact the effectiveness of social groups and there seems to be a way here to feel crudely back to the social life of our ancestors.

Although it's not written in a hugely approachable style - too academic in approach - and the driving concept suffers from an inevitable degree of vagueness, this feels like an important piece of work and one that anyone with an interest in early human and pre-human society should add to their reading list.



Review by Brian Clegg


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