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 "Leading Book in Its Genre",
a review by Carroll Quigley in The Washington Sunday Star, June 28, 1970,
of a book:
by David Pilbeam.
New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1970



"Leading Book in Its Genre"



By David Pilbeam
The World of Science Library. Funk & Wagnalls. 216 pages. 175 illustrations.


   This brief text with its prolific illustrations covers the evolution of man from its beginnings, say about 30 million years ago, to about 50,000 years ago, at which time social evolution largely replaced physical evolution. The author is one of the most promising of our younger physical anthropologists, an Englishman who is now working with Professor E. L. Simons at Yale. In a field which has a number of excellent books, this volume takes its place among the leaders, especially for the earliest period.

   The evidence for human evolution is plentiful, but it is so fragmentary and scattered over such a long period that it can be fitted together in many different ways. The Simons-Pilbeam sequence, worked out over the past decade, accepts the genus Ramapithecus (about 14 million years ago) as a direct ancestor of man, with Australpithecus africanus (who flourished from about 4 million to less than a million years ago) as an intermediate form between. This scheme has won wide acceptance in recent years.

   Because of the fragmentary nature of the evidence on man's physical evolution and the dominance of tools in the evidence of his cultural evolution, it is necessary to make considerable use of assumptions and inferences, especially in regard to the less material aspects of his cultural evolution. The relatively broad role played by conjecture in this subject has allowed writers like Robert Ardrey (African Genesis) and Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape) to produce exciting, if far-fetched, versions of man's early history. Pilbeam, like most real experts in this field, will have nothing to do with these Hollywood versions. He rejects any suggestion that early men were violent, competitive, territorial, cannibalistic, or even carnivorous.


Our Ancestors

   On the contrary, he feels that our ancestors, even before they became human, lived in cooperative, non-territorial, open bands, so that individuals were free to move from one band to another (p. 84). He accepts the view of Professor Elman Service that such bonds had no hierarchical or dominance structure, even of males over females.

   As Pilbeam puts it, "Generosity, cooperation, and reciprocity tend to be the norm, and it is fairly easy to see why. Without the most intense cooperation between males in hunting and also between whole families in foodsharing (which is not found among apes), this type of society would cease to exist. Yet it existed for upwards of 2 million years." In this connection, Pilbeam recognizes the fact, now generally accepted by students of primitive hunting peoples, that early hunters had a diet in which meat probably never reached 20 percent of total food intake and the major part of the other 80 percent was obtained by women through "gathering" activities.


Strange Compilation

   The marks of the "Time-Life syndrome" lie heavily upon this volume: the pictures often intrude on the text or are irrelevant to it (especially a 1896 photograph of a naked, half-breed Australian girl on page 198); captions are often on different pages, generally opposite; many pages are not numbered; there is no table of illustrations at the front, but a listing of their sources at the back.

   Even the text, for which Pilbeam is responsible, can be faulted. This author has an excellent mind, fully aware of the differences between evidence on one hand and names, words, or theories on the other hand. But he has not taken the time, in this volume, to apply his mind to the evidence he knows so well.

   He knows that men had small canine teeth at least ten million years before they acquired tools (that is 14 million versus less than 2 million years ago), yet he says (p. 195), ''As tool replaced teeth as weapons, large male canines grew smaller." He is justifiably sceptical of the overemphasis that archaeologists put on tools, and says (p. 263) “We hominids did not live by tools alone, and there is a great deal more to being human than just chipping a few flints.'' But, as a student of human evolution, he tends to place too exclusive evidence on bones and omits many things which should be mentioned in a book on this subject, even one restricted to man's physical evolution. For example, there is nothing here on how men became hairless, or why they increased in size in the early Pleistocene (say, 2 million to 1 million years ago) from about 55 inches tall 65 pounds to about 67 inches tall weighing 130 pounds.

   Above all, there is nothing here on the effects of the rather sudden increase in the size of the human brain about 600,000 years ago. This change meant that women who went full term in gestation tended to die in childbirth, while those who had premature births had a survival advantage, so that human infants, as a whole, were born increasingly prematurely, and the period of infantile helplessness was greatly extended.

   In a similar way, Pilbeam has almost nothing to say about another distinctive human characteristic, the disappearance of the oestrus cycle and the ending, in the human female, of any connection between her fertility and her readiness for sexual activity. Despite these difficulties, which seem to indicate the author’s lesser concern with human evolution in the last million years, this volume is a good introduction to the state of our present knowledge of the subject during the earlier period of at least 30 million years.



Scan of original review


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