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Chris Beard


Unearthing the origins of monkeys, apes and humans

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

There have been many books about the origin of humans but few go back into the remote past to look at the origin of the primates. This is what Beard does here and his main aim is to put forward a somewhat controversial hypothesis. Most palaeontologists have assumed that the primates arose in Africa, but Beard thinks that they first appeared in Asia. His view comes mainly from work he himself has carried out in China, particularly in connection with a fossil species called Eosimias (the "dawn monkey" of the title).

Eosimias was very small—much smaller than modern monkeys - and may have been similar to a tarsier, although this is somewhat speculative since what we know of the creature is largely based on its molars. Beard thinks that tarsiers are the closest living relatives of the anthropoids. They live on various off-shore islands in Southeast Asia. They are the only primates that are exclusively carnivorous and are also mainly nocturnal, with huge eyes.

Beard's hypothesis is that tarsiers and anthropoids arose from a common ancestor in Asia; the tarsiers stayed at home but the anthropoids migrated to Africa (and also to the other continents where they are found today). This view is set forth in the opening and closing chapters; sandwiched in between, and taking up most of the book, is a lot of not very well integrated information: part historical, part personal, part scientific.

The trouble with this book, it seems to me, is that it never really decides whether it is meant to be a scholarly monograph or a popular account. Most readers of popular science books might surely be expected to know about Occam's razor, yet this is explained; on the other hand the text is full of references to obscure species of primate that few non-specialists will have heard of and there are detailed discussions of their dentition and and anatomy. And the reader is assumed to have a clear picture in mind of the sequence of eras such as Eocene, Palaeocene, Oligocene and the like; a diagram would have been helpful. It would also have been a good idea to provide a glossary.

Perhaps in an attempt to make this rather difficult material more "relevant" and palatable, we are given quite a lot of background historical material, starting with Cuvier and continuing into modern times. And we get accounts of Beard's own travels and experiences as well as his arguments with critics. This is somewhat pedestrian, both literally and metaphorically, and I suspect that most readers will be tempted to do a lot of skipping here.

Beard is not a bad writer (though I wish he would not use "fortuitous" to mean "fortunate") but he has been poorly served by his editor. The book tries to do too many things at once. The Asian origins hypothesis is interesting and would have made a good topic for an article in New Scientist or Scientific American, but I don't think it merited expansion into a long book. The detailed anatomical material belongs in a scientific monograph; as for the historical account, that has been better done before by others.

%T The hunt for the dawn monkey
%S Unearthing the origins of monkeys, apes and humans
%A Chris Beard
%I University of California Press
%C Berkeley and Los Angeles, London
%D 2004
%G ISBN 0-520-23369-7
%P xi + 348 pp
%K evolution, palaeontology
%O illustrated

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