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!

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Why? - Philip Goff *****

It might seem a bit odd to review a popular philosophy book here, but Philip Goff's content overlaps sufficiently with cosmology that it's appropriate, and that content is fascinating, even though chances are you won't agree with Goff all the way. The point of this book is to suggest that there is purpose behind the cosmos. The main evidence for this that Goff uses is the fine tuning of our universe that makes it suitable for life. Most cosmologists agree that this is odd, but many try to explain it using the idea of the multiverse. With some nifty mathematic-less probability (though he does invoke and describe Bayes theorem), Goff demonstrates convincingly that this argument does not hold up. (You can see some detail of how he shows that it's rubbish here .)  We then take a look at a couple of alternative explanations - a deity, or the universe itself embodying a degree of purpose, which comes under the banner of panpsychism. I didn't honestly find the arguments in

Short Cut: Maths - Katie Steckles (Ed.) ****

As a reader, I'm generally something of a sceptic on the subject of highly illustrated books that cover a topic in a series of two page spreads, but I surprised myself by enjoying Short Cut: Maths . It's described online as a paperback, but it's actually a quite handsome hardback. The book is divided into eight sections (numbers, structures, logic, geometry and shape, functions, probability and statistics, modelling and games) each of which contains six or seven spreads in the form of answers to questions. These range from the straightforward 'How high can you count on your fingers?' or 'Why can't you un-square a number?' to the intriguing 'Can a baby manage a crocodile?' and 'How many hairs are there on a bear?' As is often the case with this style of book, there are several contributors whose names are quite hard to find - as well as consulting editor Katie Steckles, we have Sam Hartburn, Alison Kiddle, and Peter Rowlett (plus illustrat

Consciousness - John Parrington ****

Consciousness provides what is the arguably biggest gap we have in our scientific knowledge. Unlike quantum physics or the detail of cell biology, this is a subject we all experience directly in our everyday lives. We know that we appear to be conscious. But what consciousness really means, if it exist at all and how it can be studied scientifically are all issues that science bumps up against repeatedly. John Parrington starts us of with some basic background to the history of consciousness 'science' from Artistotle, through Descartes to the modern distinction between the understanding of mechanisms for how we sense, remember, react to stimulus and so forth and the 'hard problem' of explaining the subjective sense of being us and our feelings. Parrington argues that our human-style consciousness, which he suggests is different from that of other animals, is a consequence of our use of language and our ability to use tools to radically transform our environment, combin