book reviews / Born in a Treacherous Time / research

Book Review: Origin of Humankind

The Origin of Humankind (Science Masters Series)The Origin of Humankind

by Richard E. Leakey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you’re interested in man’s roots, there are several authors you must read:

  • Birute Galdikas
  • Dian Fosse
  • Donald Johanson
  • GHR Von Koenigsman
  • Glen Isaacs
  • Jared Diamond
  • Ian Tattersell
  • Lev Vygotsky
  • Margaret Meade
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Richard Leakey
  • Shawna Vogel
  • Sue Savage-Rumsbaugh

…but the man who started it all with his Margaret Meade-like charisma and down-to-earth writing style was Richard Leakey. His work in Olduvai Gorge caught the publics imagination like nothing before.

If you want to meet Richard Leakey, you must read his short little summative book, The Origin of Humankind (Perseus Books 1984). In this manuscript, he explains in plain English so all of us non-doctoral candidates can understand what he has concluded after a lifetime of research it is that differentiates you and I from other animals. Much has been made of the human-ness of our close cousins, the Great Apes. Between chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, even orangutans, we see a lot of ourselves in their actions, decisions, parenting, culture. These blur the line between what really makes us human and them not. Heck, genetically, there is only 1.2% difference in our DNA–how different could we really be?

There have been tests to answer that very question. Those tests are what drove Jane Goodall into the field to see how exactly chimps were animals while she was human. Every test she ran them through, they passed. What happened when she returned from the field to show this to her scientific colleagues? They changed the tests–moved the goal posts.

At one time, the hurdle was that the animal species must be able to use tools. That fell to Goodall’s first fieldwork research in Tanzania. Then it was they must be able to use tools to make tools. That fell, too–I believe again to Goodall’s research. Then it was they must be able to identify themselves (Sue Savage-Rumbaugh crushed that one?), problem solve, visual thinking–what about symbolic thinking? I come away shaking my head, trying to clear out the multiplying requirements.If we are all part of the same human bush, I want to know. You should want to know, too.

Richard Leakey tackled that complicated problem in this 170-page book. He starts by discussing human evolution, how we differ from other primates in unique ways. He then discusses several areas that anthropologists have a difficult time finding in other species–art, language, ethical judgments, and mental skills. Yes, anthropologists do find them in other species, but not consistently and not the way man uses these. You’ll find the discussion fascinating.

He does skip one trait I think has never been refuted: Man is the only species I know that chooses to think rather than sleep or eat. Most animals spend their days hunting or resting up to hunt. The great apes throw play into the mix, but are there any species that choose to think about their future, problems, create solutions, explore for the sake of adventure in the way we do?

You can read this book in a weekend. It’ll change your thinking for a lifetime. Don’t miss it.

More books about man:

Book Review: In the Shadow Of Man

Book Review: The Tree Where Man Was Born

Book Thoughts: Worlds of a Maasai Warrior

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blog, and a monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is  editor of a K-8 technology curriculum and technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: Origin of Humankind

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