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Naturally I had heard of Leila J. Pinckney… at one time it was impossible to pass a book-shop or a railway bookstall without seeing a row of her novels…. The critics usually headed their reviews of her stories with the words:

ANOTHER PINCKNEY!!!

or sometimes, more offensively:

ANOTHER PINCKNEY!!!

(P.G. Wodehouse in Usborne, 1979, p. 225)

ANOTHER STRINGER!!! Those who, like me, enjoyed Chris Stringer's previous semi-popular book on human evolution, Homo britannicus (Stringer, 2006), will be pleased to see The Origin of our Species, written with the same broad approach to the subject and tying so many strands together. Stringer's writing style is lucid and all-embracing, pulling information and ideas together from all conceivable sources to support his central narrative—the fossil record, palaeoclimatology, ancient and modern DNA, and archaeological artefacts to name a few. My only criticism of the production of The Origin is that the photographs, although good, would have been even better if printed on glossy paper as a group of plates. But the converse of this is that the photographs have an immediate impact as published in close association to the relevant text—I shouldn't complain.

The Origin reinforces the common and, I'm sure, accurate impression that fossil human remains and cultural artefacts occur at only a limited number of horizons, separated by large stratigraphic and geographic gaps, making interpretation of patterns difficult, at best. But modern techniques of absolute dating, coupled with other analytical techniques in, for example, computerized tomography, provide a data-rich environment from which to pursue these studies. From this modern platform, so much wider and more informed than even 30 years ago, Stringer examines the radiations of the various species of humans, and is not afraid to stress the contradictions and questions that still remain to be answered.

The ‘bushiness’ of human evolution is stressed and I was reminded of Gould's (1989, pp. 27 et seq.) discourse against the common misconception of the evolutionary ladder. I'd like to think that we're all more used to ‘bushiness’ in evolution today, but it is a concept that is always wise to emphasise and then emphasise again. It is significant that Stringer doesn't illustrate the ‘bush’ until the end of The Origins, in his last diagram (p. 266), building up his thesis until the case is strong enough to be interpreted in time and space. The concept that Homo sapiens evolved once and once only, in Africa, and only then radiated geographically, is surely the only sensible biological interpretation of the data. That there may have been some interbreeding with other species, perhaps most notably the Neanderthals, is surely a side issue, albeit a fascinating one, however meagre the supporting data.

One thing I thank the author for is the detailed examination of the morphological features that are used to define and differentiate the principal players in the story, Homo sapiens, H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis and H. neanderthalensis (pp. 28–29, figures on pp. 30, 31). This is surely an essentially starting point for any discussion on human evolution, yet it is one that I have never seen hitherto in comparable works on the subject. The anterior and lateral views of skulls of all these species both support this text, and enable the reader to form their own mental picture of the similarities and differences between species.

The Origin of our Species is stimulating, informative and entertaining. It deserves to be widely read, not just by that poorly defined creature, the ‘intelligent layman’, but also by Earth and life scientists of any hue. And if you haven't discovered Homo britannicus yet, read both!

REFERENCES

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  2. REFERENCES
  • Gould, S. J. 1989. Wonderful Life: the Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. W.W. Norton: New York, 347 pp.
  • Stringer, C. 2006. Homo britannicus. Penguin: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, xiii + 242 pp.
  • Usborne, R. (ed.) 1979. Vintage Wodehouse. Penguin: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 405 pp.