The Monkey in the Mirror - Essays on the Science of What Makes Us Human, by Ian Tattersall, 2002.

Review by John Loofbourow, MD

Tatersall is a curator for the American Museum of Natural History, in the division of Anthropology. He studied lemurs in Madagascar, where an astonishing diversity of our beautiful little primate relatives is to be found. He noted than some linear order expected by a simple Darwinian process. He noted a similar expected diversity as seen in other animal groups with one exception: Homo sapiens. Later as a paleoanthropologist, he realized the accumulated fossil record reveals a fairly diverse group of erect hominids existed in the remote past, yet all disappeared except one. Why?

Tattersall notes that the unique human attribute, apparently shared by no other earth life form, is the extensive use of metaphor, or symbols, including but not limited to language. Words, for example, are symbols for an infinity of other things like persons, places, objects, numbers, ideas, and emotions. Much of the beauty of word-metaphor is to be found in it’s imprecision, just as the beauty of number-metaphor can be found in relative precision. Art is also metaphor, as in poetry, painting, plastic art, or literature. But why, how did H. sapiens develop this ability? Why did not the use of symbols develop slowly in traditional Darwinian terms? Tattersall proposes a new subset of evolutionary rules.

I picked this book up after being intrigued by a Tattersall piece I read somewhere in a magazine. The book, presented as a series of essays, seems more like a typical primer for non scientists, because all the essays are related, leading to and supporting the author's thesis in Chapter 6 titled "How Did We Achieve Humanity?" The introductory chapters include topics like the scientific method being based on doubt; evolution. In Chapter 5 he reviews the accumulated record of paleoanthropology, leading to Cro-Magnons, apparently the first hominids to use symbols. Here for the first time, 30,000 years ago, suddenly and without precedent, the record reveals "Sculpture, engraving, painting, body ornamentation, music, notation,…(and) elaborate burial of the dead…".

Then Tattersall formally introduces s his neo Darwinian position: that evolution can take place by huge leaps when latent capabilities, having been developed slowly over the millennia to some other purpose; or to no apparent purpose whatever, floating unobtrusively in the genetic soup because they don't cause any problems. Suddenly then, these latent capabilities are put to a new and unforeseen use. It is a sort of Darwinian serendipity, which he calls "exaptation" in contrast to adaptation.

The rest of these two remarkable essays ( chapters 5 & 6), is a refinement of that exaptation statement, especially interesting where language is concerned. He rejects the ideas put forth in Richard Dawkins' book, "The selfish Gene" ( where genes tend to perpetuate themselves in their offspring, as though they had minds and a will to use them), although I assume he would accept the idea of the importance of "memes" ( ideas which tend to perpetuate themselves).

I do recommend this book. The author is readable and competent. I found his thesis clearly stated and well presented, and I felt it was valid. Many of the essays are just background however, and if one were fairly comfortable with scientific dogma, and wished to read efficiently, one could just skim to chapters 5 and 6. There, in my opinion, the real value of the book is clearly and eloquently stated.