This book represents
a most welcome and most scholarly examination of the origins and evolution of
human nature. The breadth of Carel van Schaik’s approach to this subject is
quite amazing. He covers everything from the basics of evolutionary and
behavioural biology, the fossil evidence of human evolution, behavioural ecology,
the origins of technology, the evolution of sexuality, social organization,
cognitive capacities and language. There are even chapters dealing with the
origins of aesthetic expression, as well as warfare, morality and religion. As
a result of his efforts, van Schaik has achieved a valuable synthesis and guide
for undergraduate students as well as for those postgraduates who wish to widen
their knowledge of comparative primatology, human behaviour and evolution.
Teachers in a number of disciplines (anthropology, psychology and the
biological sciences) should find that this book provides a valuable resource.
The work is carefully structured, with chapters organized under 8 section
headings: Evolution, Behavior and Culture; The History of Humans; Subsistence and
Technology; Sex and Sexual Selection; Life’s Changes; Social Life; Cooperation;
The Cognitive Animal. Each section commences with a clearly written
introduction, so that students can address basic concepts, before progressing
to the more detailed material in the ensuing chapters. As a textbook, this one
succeeds admirably. Inevitably, some topics are discussed only briefly. As an
example, in chapter 4, Homo floresiensis merits just 4 lines in the text.
However, given that 12 years after their discovery, scholars are still hotly
debating the affinities of the Flores fossils, van Schaik was wise to avoid
exploring this particular controversy. Of greater concern to me, as somebody
who specializes in researching the evolution of sexuality, are some shortcomings
in section IV (Sex and Sexual Selection). For example, van Schaik states that
‘despite the great variability of sexual behavior in different species, its
function, apart from fertilization, is the same: the avoidance of infanticide’.
My own view is that infanticidal behaviour is most unlikely to have played such
a pervasive role in primate (including human) evolution [Dixson, 2012, 2015].
Setting this aside, The Primate Origins of Human Nature promises to fulfil the
prediction made by the editors of the Foundations of Human Biology series,
namely that it represents a ‘landmark work that will help to bring about a
reintegration of anthropology’s scattered parts’. Here, the editors refer to
the unfortunate intellectual schism which has separated biological anthropology
from cultural and social anthropology in many universities. Hopefully, this
artificial division is already beginning to break down, and van Schaik’s superb
book will help to hasten that process.
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