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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Artifact Space (SF) - Miles Cameron *****

This is a cracking (and, frankly, wrist-cracking at 568 pages) piece of space opera. That's a term that is sometimes used as a put-down to suggest pulp rubbish, but I use it affectionately. It's not trying to be great literature, but it's a great read, which is all I want from a book.  The author mentions Alistair Reynolds as an inspiration - and it's certainly true that there's something of Reynolds' (or Banks') sweeping imagination of a space-based civilisation. But for me, there's more here of a modern equivalent of Robert Heinlein at his best. Not the soppy stuff he produced towards the end of his career, but the period that peaked with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress . In fact, the basic storyline has a distinct resemblance to that of Heinlein's Starman Jones . In that 1950s novel, the main character is from a spacegoing family who manages to get a place on a ship despite not having the qualifications, and with his skill manages in the end to save

A Dominant Character - Samanth Subramanian ****

When a science book does well in the mainstream press, the science content is often weak. In this biography of geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, Samanth Subramanian manages to get enough science in to make it worthwhile as popular science, but also piles on the biographical details, particularly on Haldane's political side, which unusually for a scientist dominated his life. Haldane, it seems, was a classic posh boy who thinks he knows what's good for working folk - a communist who quoted the classics - and along with his irascible, blunt (well, rude really) personality, delight in shocking others and apparent enthusiasm for the dangers of warfare, comes across as a fascinating, if sometimes repulsive study (on the whole, Subramanian takes a more forgiving view, though without holding back on Haldane's faults). Apart from his decades-long enthusiasm for the Soviet Union and ruthless (and fearless) approach to military life, we see how Haldane's science brought huge strides i

This is Your Mind on Plants - Michael Pollan ***

There is a powerfully American cultural flavour to this book that even comes through in the title. I'll be honest, that title baffled me initially. The first thing it made me think of was the TV show 'This is Your Life', then I wondered if it was about having ideas while lying on a straw mattress. In reality it's a complete misnomer - it's entirely about Michael Pollan's life on plants (and the psychoactive chemicals derived from them) - it's a very me-oriented book. I was sold this as a science book, but it really isn't. Pollan describes his interactions with three plant-derived chemical substances: opium, caffeine and mescaline - but there's hardly anything about the science of what's involved, just a brief, dictionary-like reference to how these chemicals act. It's all about Pollan, what he experiences, how he feels. That Americanness also comes across in his casual acceptance that someone he deals with keeps an assault rifle by his desk,