As a dedicated member of the human species, I was curious when my advisor recommended this book about human evolution. The author uses an engaging approach to discuss the changes that took place as early primates from the Cretaceous period evolved bit by bit towards modern humans and beyond!
Baxter selects 19 individuals and follows each through a portion of their lives. The first is a tiny, rat-like primate living along-side dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and the last is a distant relative of humans living 500 million years in the future. As we get to know each individual we get a sense of what motivates them, how they live, and how they have built upon that which their ancestors used to be successful.
I had two big take-aways from this book. The first was how much human behavior is reminiscent of our evolutionary ancestors, and the second is how short a time (in the grander scheme of things) that humans have been around.
Behavior from Our Past:
Baxter builds the human psyche piece by piece as each character becomes more intelligent, more resourceful, and more human-like by inheriting and modifying the traits of its ancestors. Seeing this construction play out over the course of the book gives an interesting perspective on which behaviors are new, which are old, and how each one gave a selection advantage to the ancestors who developed it.
One of the most interesting examples was Baxter’s hypothesis that pre-humans that could believe in religions (i.e. seemingly un-related causal relationships) had a huge advantage over those who didn’t. Believers would fight more fiercely and endure greater hardships because they were doing so for mysterious, unseen rewards and punishments. People who couldn’t make this leap of faith would give up far more quickly, and hence were eventually out-competed by modern humans who could. I’d say that’s a pretty plausible explanation for people’s superstitious behavior!
We’re Just A Blip:
The other major point I got from reading this book is that humans as we understand ourselves are really just a blip in the evolutionary time-frame. We’ve been able to significantly out-pace biological evolution with our technological evolution. What is really startling about this is how quickly that technological progress could be set back. If the expertise that is embedded in our culture were lost, all of the grandeur of humans today would fall quickly back to the struggle to hunt and gather that was our plight ten-thousand years ago! We’re really hanging on a fragile, precarious thread.
Overall it was a great read. I found the book intriguing and educational in the beginning as Baxter leads up to modern humans, and as he lets his imagination soar in the “after humans” period of the book, it was an interesting exercise in sci-fi futurism.