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

Shape - Jordan Ellenberg ***

I really enjoyed Jordan Ellenberg’s earlier book How Not to be Wrong , so looked forward to Shape with some anticipation. In principle what we have here is a book about geometry - but not seen from the direction of the (dare I say it) rather boring, Euclid-based geometry textbooks some of us suffered at school. Instead Ellenberg sets out to show how geometry underlies pretty much everything. Along the way, we are given some nice turns of phrase. I enjoyed, for example, Ellenberg’s remark on the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, where Ellenberg remarks Hobbes was ‘a man whose confidence in his own mental powers is not fully captured by the prefix “over”’.  Whether or not what we read about here is really all geometry is a matter of labelling (as is the ‘number of holes in a straw’ question that Ellenberg entertainingly covers). Arguably, for example, there is some material that is probability that can be looked at in a geometric fashion, rather than geometry that produces probabilistic result

Bergita and Urs Ganse - Four Way Interview

Bergita and Urs Ganse are siblings and the authors of The Spacefarer’s Handbook – Science and Life Beyond Earth , a translation of their German book, published by Springer in 2017. Urs is a theoretical space physicist, with a research focus on plasma simulations and works at the University of Helsinki in Finland. He uses supercomputers to model the near-Earth plasma environment and its interactions with Earth's magnetic field. Bergita is a university professor at Saarland University in Germany, an orthopedic surgeon and a physiologist. Her research focuses on the musculoskeletal system in spaceflight. She is a co-investigator of an ISS experiment, and she teaches Space Medicine to university students. Why Space?  Urs: I guess we were exposed too much to science-fiction as children. We watched Star Trek every day, read books about space and played computer games. Somehow, spaceflight became a solid part of our normal understanding of the world. Ever since then, it has seemed kind of

The Beauty of Chemistry - Philip Ball ***

To do this review fairly, I ought to point out that I'm not a great fan of books where the images dominate the text - a more visually-oriented reader may appreciate the book more than me. However, there is enough text here by Philip Ball to lift what could otherwise be little more than a coffee table book. The text I'd definitely give four stars, but in the end, the dominance of the imagery by Wenting Zhu and Yan Liang pulled it down to three stars for me, because I did still find, for example, the number of pages of pictures of bubbles or crystals (for example), started to get a bit samey. From the opener on bubbles we go on to the inevitable chapter on crystals - surely chemistry's visual superstar. I was disappointed not to see Roger Hiorn's 2008 work Seizure featured, when the artist covered a bedsit with copper sulfate crystals. I think this reflects a weakness in the visual approach, which gives us the chemical imagery in isolation from the real world - a crystal