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The Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 62-65 ( 15 January )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/brace.html

Book Review

The Monkey in the Mirror: Essays on the Science of What Makes Us Human
by Ian Tattersall
Harcourt, Inc., N.Y. 205 pp. $25.

Reviewed by C. Loring Brace, Professor of Anthropology at the Department of Anthropology and Curator of Biological Anthropology at the Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, USA. Brace's latest book is Evolution in an Anthropological View, AltaMira Press, 2000.

Ian Tattersall is an able and graceful writer which just heightens my dismay over this unfortunate book. I should also add that he is a charming and gracious person, a delightful dinner companion, and an old friend. I put this in to indicate that, despite the criticism I am offering of his book, I have no personal animus against the author.

For the past three decades, Tattersall has been Curator of Biological Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. From the time of his graduate study at Yale, his field focus has been on the lemurs of Madagascar, but problems arising from local politics have increasingly restricted access to the subjects of his study. Consequently he has turned his interest to other matters. Increasingly over the past two decades, this has involved the study of human “evolution.”

The word “evolution” is used advisedly because Tattersall is resolutely opposed to the view that natural selection operating on the slight changes offered by the process of mutation is the engine that drives the course of organic evolution. As exemplified in The Monkey in the Mirror, Ian Tattersall has become the point man in what I have referred to as “the great leap backwards” (Brace 2000:129). The focus of his disapproval has been the neo-Darwinian outlook in the pre-World War II Evolutionary Synthesis of Theodosius Dobzhansky, George Gaylord Simpson, and its surviving giant Ernst Mayr. In his view, “the Synthesis ‘hardened’ into dogma” (2002:35); “a dogma whose heavy hand continues to oppress the science of human origins a half-century later” (Tattersall 2000:2).

At this point, the reader has every right to query, ‘If natural selection working on spontaneously generated variation is not the reason why evolution occurs, what - short of special creation - could the mechanism actually have been’? Tattersall’s answer in fact is a kind of crypto-creationism. I do not mean to imply that his form of creationism has anything to do with the version advocated by fundamentalist religious adherents. He is quite articulate in his opposition to “the tenets of creationism taught as science in schools” (2002:4).

His mechanism, however, is a form of species selection that requires the sudden and unexaminable appearance and disappearance of species. As he puts it, “speciation remains the black box of biology, a phenomenon that is of critical importance but that remains poorly understood” (2002:41). His only offhand suggestion of a mechanism is the possibility of the drastic changes attributed to ‘homeobox’ additions or duplications whereby “modern” body architecture and size was “achieved . . . in a single leap rather than as a result of gradual fine-tuning over the millennia” (2002:46). Although he does not mention this, it brings to mind the “hopeful monster” advocacy of Richard Goldschmidt nearly sixty years ago.

Again and again he refers to modern humans as exemplifying a “perfection” that he assumes was lacking in the hominids of antiquity (Tattersall 1999:24-25, 2000:8, 14, 2002:186). Clearly there is a major teleological caste to his assumptions. He denies a priori that the modern human condition could occur by “linear transformation” and, in the absence of any reason or evidence, speaks of it as an “emergent” (2002:181). This is reminiscent of the almost mystical “emergent evolution” advocacy of one of his pre-Synthesis predecessors at the American Museum, the anthropologist-paleontologist William King Gregory (Gregory 1951). As the University of Chicago Historian and Philosopher of Science, Robert J. Richards, previously observed, “He endorses a punctuated equilibrium model of hominid evolution,” and “This quantum evolutionary theory seems more a conclusion derived from deep cultural belief than from strong evidence or convincing hypothesis” (Richards 1998:30).

Two aspects of that “deep cultural belief” are actually mentioned in The Monkey in the Mirror. One is the reliance on his Madagascar lemurs as a model for his expectations concerning the significance of the meaning of variation in other organisms. As he has noted previously on many occasions, an examination of lemur skeletons in the laboratory would reveal no differences in form between specimens that actually belong to very different species. This has led him to the expectation that when you actually see morphological differences in the skeletons being studied you certainly should expect species differences (Tattersall 1993). In his view, then, the hominid fossil record should have been the product of at least twenty different species, all but one of which has become extinct. This is in line with his long-term recommendation that “ . . . it would be better for the comprehensiveness of our understanding of the human fossil record that, if err we must, we err (within reason!) on the side of recognizing too many rather than as is the tendency, to too few species units” (Tattersall 1986:168). This is a secular echo of the outlook of Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century who declared that “ . . . the goodness of the species transcends the goodness of the individual as form transcends matter; therefore the multiplication of species is a greater addition to the good of the universe than the multiplication of individuals of a single species” (Summa Contra Gentiles Vol II:45, quoted in Lovejoy 1936:76).

To put Tattersall’s expectations in perspective, his Madagascar lemur populations are arboreal creatures whose ranges are tied to the extent of the forests they inhabit. During the Pleistocene, the Madagascar rain forest was repeatedly divided into separate patches during the periods of lesser rainfall that coincided with the onset of glaciation in the temperate portions of the world. Subsequently those patches re-coalesced, but the continuing inhabitants in each had meanwhile differentiated genetically, although not morphologically since the life-way to which they were adapted had remained the same. Genetic differentiation however had proceeded to the extent that reproductive continuity was no longer possible.

The long-term history of the inhabitants of the grasslands and adjacent areas of the Old World was radically different. The African savannah remained largely continuous despite the separations and subsequent re-coalescences of patches of rain forest. The fauna of the savannah then shows nothing like the species proliferation of the fauna of the tropical forest. This applies to primates as well as carnivores and ungulates. To this day, baboons retain a genetic continuity that runs from Cairo to Cape Town despite the fact that there are considerable morphological differences (Jolly 1993, in press).

Our Pleistocene hominid forebears were exploiters of the savannas and their adjacent gallery forests. There is no reason, then, that one should expect to find a roster of twenty different species among them after they had become facultative carnivores at the Pliocent/Pleistocene boundary some two million years ago. When one adds to this the archaeological record which shows that a single hunting and carcass-processing life way continued unbroken throughout the entire inhabited Old World from the time of the first emergence of the genus Homo until the dawn of recorded history, then there is no reason to expect specific distinction between the hominids in one part of the world and those in another. The likelihood that more than one species of early hominid independently developed a hunting life-way is so improbable that it should be discounted unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary - which there is not. Plains hunting members of the order Carnivora also show no specific differentiation in spite of their spread over enormous areas. Canis lupus, for example, arose at just about the same time that Homo emerged from Australopithecus and did not undergo specific differentiation over a range that ran from Norway to Greenland and from Russia to the Arabian peninsula.

The other aspect of Tattersall’s “deep cultural belief” is his integration into the ethos of cladistics that took root and flourished in the American Museum at just about the time he began his curatorship there. The techniques of cladistics - the depiction of trees of phylogenetic relationships of separate species - can be very useful, but they became elevated to the status of what almost could be called a belief system or a cult at the American Museum of Natural History. Relatively early in the game two of Tattersall’s colleagues, identified as “transformed” or “pattern” cladists, declared that “We believe that Darwinism . . . is . . . a theory that has been put to the test and found false” (Nelson and Platnick 1984:143). It is quite clear that some of this almost sectarian dogmatism has rubbed off on Tattersall himself. The attempts to raise a useful technique up to the level of a generator of theoretical expectations has moved “pattern cladists” out of the main stream of evolutionary biology (Dawkins 1986:279; Brower 2000:149). Not surprisingly, he denounces evolutionary psychology as an “arrogant pseudoscience” (Tattersall 2002:50).

There is one other major intellectual flaw in Tattersall’s treatment of evolutionary dynamics which is repeated in The Monkey in the Mirror. He has somehow convinced himself that, since selection operates by eliminating a whole individual, it cannot therefore have any effect on the frequency of a particular single gene or trait in a population. Somehow he has missed the entire message that has emerged in the field of population genetics over the last seventy years. Yes selection does eliminate a whole individual and all the genes possessed by that individual, but if that individual is eliminated because of the effect of that particular gene - or if that individual thrives because of the effect of that particular gene - and if this is true for all the other possessors of that gene in the population as a whole, then changes in the frequency of individual genes are very easily accounted for. The classic example in human populations is the change in the frequency of hemoglobin S - and sickle-cell anemia - under the influence of falciparum malaria. The change in the frequency of blood group O as a result of smallpox in Medieval Iceland is another example. The application of this understanding in the world of commercial agriculture has had enormous effects, but somehow the implications have yet to reach the American Museum of Natural History.

Tattersall’s professional expertise does not extend to the realm of the evidence relating to the human fossil record or even that relating to the skeletal traits of living human populations. When he makes generalizations about “the lack of any evidence for a biological transition from Neanderthals to moderns and the inherent improbability of this event” (2002:136), the reader should immediately be suspicious. There is a quantity of such evidence, and I am one of those who has accumulated a portion of it and put it in print (Brace 1979; Brace et al. 1991). This and other comparable efforts have been available for years but are simply glossed over without mention in The Monkey in the Mirror and its immediate predecessors.

In Tattersall’s mind, evolution can only occur in small isolated populations where new species arise in mystical and unknowable fashion (Tattersall 2002:188-189). Since isolation between human populations has effectively ceased since the end of the Pleistocene, “there is no prospect of significant morphological or cognitive change in the human evolutionary future” (2002:192). If he had even a rudimentary knowledge of the actual skeletal features of human populations over the last part of the Pleistocene and the Holocene, he would realize that morphological change, far from being over, has actually speeded up. By Pleistocene standards, we are living right in the midst of an ongoing punctuation event (Brace 1979, 2000). However we are so close to it and its pace is so gradual that we are unaware of what is happening although it is an ongoing world-wide phenomenon.

Finally, there is not a single reference in the whole book and there is no index. The eight essays then are simply opinion pieces generated in support of an outlook that is a pre-Darwinian image of the nature of the world. It promotes Linnaeus’ vision that the object of science is not to understand how things work in nature, but that the practice of science is embodied in the bestowal of names. With admirable energy and verbal skill, Ian Tattersall is trying to return the study of human evolution back to the intellectual ethos of the middle of the 18th century. This is what I meant when I identified him as being the point man for the “great leap backwards.”


Brace, C. Loring. 1979. Krapina, “classic” Neanderthals, and the evolution of the European face. Journal of Human Evolution 8(5):527-550.

Brace, C. Loring. Evolution in an Anthropological View. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, California. 407 pp. Amazon US | UK

Brace, C. Loring, Shelly L. Smith and Kevin D. Hunt. 1991. What big teeth you had Grandma! Human tooth size past and present, in Marc A. Kelley and Clark S. Larsen (eds.) Advances in Dental Anthropology. Wiley-Liss, N.Y. pp. 33-57. Amazon US

Brower, Andrew V. Z. 2000. Evolution is not a necessary assumption of cladistics. Cladistics 16(1):143-154.

Dawkins, Richard. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. W. W. Norton, N.Y. 332 pp. Amazon US | UK

Gregory, William King. 1951. Evolution Emerging. A Survey of Changing Patterns from Primeval Life to Man. The Macmillan Co., N.Y. 736 pp. Amazon US

Jolly, Clifford J. 1993. Species, subspecies, and baboon systematics, in W. H. Kimbel and L. V. Martin (eds.) Species, Species concepts, and Primate Evolution. Plenum Press, N.Y. pp. 67-107. Amazon US | UK

Jolly, Clifford J. in press. A proper study of mankind. American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. 1936. The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 382 pp. Amazon US | UK

Nelson, Gareth, and Norman Platnick. 1984. Systematics and evolution, in Mae-Wan Ho and Peter T. Saunders (eds.) Beyond Neo-Darwinism. Academic Press, London. pp. 143-158. Amazon US

Richards, Robert J. 1998. “Designing man,” review of Becoming Human and Human Uniqueness by Ian Tattersall. New York Times Book Review. April 26, p. 30.

Tattersall, Ian. 1986. Species recognition in human paleontology. Journal of Human Evolution 15(3):165-175.

Tattersall, Ian. 1999. Rethinking human evolution. Archaeology 52(4):22-25.

Tattersall, Ian. 2000. Paleoanthropology: The last half-century. Evolutionary Anthropology 9(1):56-62.

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Brace, C L. (2002). Review of The Monkey in the Mirror; Essays on the Science of What Makes Us Human by Ian Tattersall. Human Nature Review. 2: 62-65.

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