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Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution – Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending (2009)

As a long time reader of science books I was immediately attracted to this book due to its great title – titles are important, take note publishers. The last science book I read was the great The Fifth Miracle by Paul Davies, which was an examination of how life evolved. Cochran and Harpending’s book promised an argument against the long held theory that humans stopped evolving fifty thousand years ago, just after emerging out of Africa. The book describes itself as the “…the latest edition to the fast emerging discipline of biohistory.”  There’s been quite a bit of news related to this area lately, so I thought that it was time to give it a read.

The book opens with a refutation of “conventional wisdom”, with the authors claiming that human evolution has accelerated in the last ten thousand years due to various selection pressures, such as agriculture, geographic expansion and climate change. They go on to examine the period that started fifty to forty thousand years ago when modern humans moved into the European territories of the Neanderthal. Ten thousand years later the Neanderthal were extinct and humans were flourishing. No one knows for sure but it seems that humans displayed better adaptations such as advanced language, tools and hunting techniques. There is convincing genetic evidence that we interbreed with Neanderthals and picked up and kept various advantageous genes – just ask Ozzy Osbourne.

The ensuing four chapters examine the impact of the advent of agriculture some ten thousand years ago and how the changes to what we ate affected our genetic makeup; the genetic flow of humanity as expressed by selective sweeps of particular genes and also the impact of expansion on humans throughout the globe. A succinct summary - but if you want to know the facts then read the book! But is it worth reading?

The ideas presented in The 10,000 Year Explosion are certainly well argued. The authors blend history, archaeology, paleontology and biology to weave their arguments convincingly. They refer to their work as “genetic history” – a “new kind of history.” This is all very well but unfortunately the flaw of this book is that the writing style is relatively bland. There is an effort to engage and give the facts some personality, but as interested as I was in the arguments presented I often found myself bored. I believe that writing popular science is a tricky thing, because, after all, you don’t want to dumb it down; but also you don’t want to put the average reader off either. After reading this book I appreciate science writers such as Paul Davies and Marcus Chown for their efforts to both explain and engage.

The 10,000 Year Explosion ends with a case study of the Ashkenazi Jews – Jews that were confined to Europe from medieval times and that were restricted to money lending and clerical professions; the kind of jobs that required a certain level of intelligence. The combination of the demands of their profession and their tendency to marry within their faith meant that the European Jews were selected for a higher intelligence than Jews in the Middle East. Five hundred or so years later descendants of this group were making the major scientific breakthroughs throughout many disciplines and they also displayed higher IQs than other groups. A fascinating case study, but once again the bland writing created a nagging sense of boredom.

The story of human evolution is an amazing tale to behold - one that’s obsessed me on and off for years. It’s compelling, fascinating and most of all it’s our story. Unfortunately this book does not really capture the sense of wonder that our story can engender, which is a shame. Read this book if you want the facts, but perhaps look elsewhere if you want to feel that elusive sense of wonder. Although I was slightly disappointed overall, the one interesting thing this book did do for me was to make me ponder just how our present point in human evolutionary history will be viewed in five hundred years; and that’s not such a bad thing.

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