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Misia Landau


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

We don't usually think of science in terms of narrative, but in this book Misia Landau shows convincingly that this is true at least of accounts of human evolution. Right at the start of the modern version we meet the celebrated encounter between Thomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce in the Oxford debate. As Landau remarks, the way this episode is often presented recalls the legend of Perseus and Andromeda, with the hero (a scientist) slaying the dragon of prejudice to rescue a maiden (truth). And he quotes extensively from nineteenth and twentieth century authors, starting with Darwin, to demonstrate very convincingly that they were all telling stories that conform surprisingly well to standard mythological themes about heroes.

The human story begins with our hero living a relatively safe and carefree life in the trees. Though he is not yet human there is something special about him—often he is smaller or weaker than other animals. For some reason he is dislodged from his home (comes down from the trees) and sets out on a journey or adventure.

He now finds himself in an unfamiliar place where he has to survive a series of tests, posed perhaps by climate change or predators. These experiences begin to transform him from ape to human. The transformation occurs, as it does in many myths and fairy tales, when someone presents the hero with a gift. Here the benefactor may be natural selection or developmental tendencies inherent in evolution, for example, and the gift may be increased intelligence, tools, or a moral sense. (As Landau makes clear, not all the later evolutionists were using the Darwinian principle of natural selection.)

The hero now becomes a primitive human being, but further testing is needed to complete his transformation. Perhaps the challenge is provided by the advent of an Ice Age or by competition from other humans. The hero surmounts this threat and acquires civilization. This is a triumphant end to the story but, especially these days, there is generally a sting in the tail. Will he be able to cope with the results of his own success and with the latent flaws in himself? Nowadays, accounts of our evolution usually conclude with a sermon on the need to protect the environment.

Landau presents his account of how palaeontologists have described the career of Man the Hero with delightful irony. But his conclusion is not negative. He does not think that scientists should avoid the use of narrative to describe human evolution. Some do not use it, in fact, but if the minds of readers are to be engaged, some form of narrative is necessary. But, he says, perhaps we should be finding ways to tell new stories.

17 October 2008

%T Narratives of Human Evolution
% Landau, Misia
%I Yale University Press
%C New Haven and London
%D 1991
%G ISBN 0-300-04940-4
%P xii + 202pp
%K evolution

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