The idea of a missing link between humanity and our animal ancestors predates evolution and popular science and actually has religious roots in the deist concept of the Great Chain of Being. Yet, the metaphor has lodged itself in the contemporary imagination, and new fossil discoveries are often hailed in headlines as revealing the elusive transitional step, the moment when we stopped being "animal" and started being "human". In The Accidental Species, Henry Gee, longtime paleontology editor at Nature, takes aim at this misleading notion, arguing that it reflects a profound misunderstanding of how evolution works and, when applied to the evolution of our own species, supports mistaken ideas about our own place in the universe.
Gee presents a robust and stark challenge to our tendency to see ourselves as the acme of creation. Far from being a quirk of religious fundamentalism, human exceptionalism, Gee argues, is an error that also infects scientific thought. Touring the many features of human beings that have recurrently been used to distinguish us from the rest of the animal world, Gee shows that our evolutionary outcome is one possibility among many, one that owes more to chance than to an organized progression to supremacy.
He starts with bipedality, which he shows could have arisen entirely by accident, as a by-product of sexual selection, moves on to technology, large brain size, intelligence, language, and, finally, sentience. He reveals each of these attributes to be alive and well throughout the animal world - they are not, indeed, unique to our species. The Accidental Species combines Gee’s firsthand experience on the editorial side of many incredible paleontological findings with healthy skepticism and humor to create a book that aims to overturn popular thinking on human evolution - the key is not what’s missing, but how we’re linked.
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After listening to several excellent books on evolutionary biology, and several specifically on human evolution, I found this the most frustrating of all I have read. The author unnecessarily belabours every single point, taking a paragraph to make a point worth only a sentence or two, and tries a little hard to interject humour and personal anecdotes. It all just feels a little strained, and the good points he is trying to make are often lost in the strained writing style. I could not finish it and am returning it to use my hard-earned credit on something else.
The narrator didn't help this sense of poor writing style; his job seems very tiring work to him, as he took every comma as an opportunity to pause for a beat or two and take a rest! Overall this felt a rambling book that took all detours possible to stretch out the telling of every single point, made only more ponderous a listen by the lumpy narration style. Very disappointed.
- Lisa Hurring