Monday, April 22, 2002

Just read The Monkey in the Mirror, essays on evolution by anthropologist Ian Tattersall. As an essayist, Tattersall leaves much to be desired. An essay is not the right choice of structure to fully explore or explain any technical subject. Instead, the best essays present a well-thought-out and provoking viewpoint. Tattersall's essays either attempt only the former, or fail at the latter.

The essay on Neanderthals provides the amount of content one would expect in a textbook with size limitations: a readable summary, but not enough detail to satisfy, and not enough thought to provoke. Not a great essay, but it would have been an excellent chapter had it been surrounded by similarly excellent and related chapters in a coherent introductory book on paleoanthropology.

The essay on evolutionary psychology, however, was truly bad. It's fine to disagree with a new field like evo-psych, but I expect a better class of disagreement in a published essay by an expert on the human evolutionary record. Tattersall reduces the goals and approaches of evo-psych to a caricature in order to ridicule them. He fails to back up statements like "it is certainly the case that our behaviors are not directly programmed by our genes". He completely mis-characterizes some research: "Recently, for example, some of the more literally minded of the evolutionary psychologists have taken to defending rape as an 'adaptive' behaviour" (emphasis mine). Although Tattersall fails to identify this research as Thornhill and Palmer (in fact the book completely lacks references), they're the most well-known for such research, and they do not defend the behavior in any way. Tattersall fails to note that in fact the researchers suggest understanding such behaviors better may help us prevent those behaviors.

Glad it was just a library book.

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