Evolution For Dummies.
March 2, 2007 10:44 PM   Subscribe

Understanding Human Prehistory. Mike Munford (who???) summarises the results of his "limited study of human prehistory for the benefit of others who may have found most of the available books on it as baffling as [he] did."
posted by Effigy2000 (21 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks. I've no idea what experts might think of this, but I like his writing style.
posted by paduasoy at 11:26 PM on March 2, 2007

This is an interesting project, but this bugs me:

Cohen's book explains the only possible reason why humanity embarked on the agricultural revolution...

No it doesn't. It explores one theory, and it's not without it's flaws.
posted by cmonkey at 11:47 PM on March 2, 2007

From further down the same page:

Of course, civilized moral values are more complex than the simple code suggested above. I don't intend to set the code up as a simple one to follow in our 21st century lives. Nevertheless the natural harmony between the traditional code and the requirements of animal survival - and the practical results of putting the code so completely aside - do suggest that we should not dismiss it as a quaint survival from the past.
posted by Optamystic at 2:24 AM on March 3, 2007

The answer was very simple: expanding human populations meant that people had no choice. There had been a food crisis. Agriculture yields more calories per hectare; it was the only way that the available land could be made to yield sufficient food to feed a growing human population. Agriculture was the only possible way forward; towards greater population densities and the beginnings of civilization.

He seems to be confusing effect with cause.
posted by three blind mice at 3:22 AM on March 3, 2007

three blind mice, I think hunter gatherer societies had to practice selective euthanasia of newborns to keep population density down. Since that doesn't square with ND¢'s quote, I think he has some cognitive dissonance on the issue.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:34 AM on March 3, 2007

The commentary on the handaxe seems dubious to me. First, his source appears to be one of the main front page hits for "prehistoric hand axe" on google which calls into question his research methods.

Next, the theory itself seems quite unlikely. The almond shape seems to be an extremely clumsy shape for a missile weapon. Also the idea that it is a weapon for hunting seems to contradict the previous section on hunting where he notes that hunting was not efficient and humans probably usually stole food from predators (which dont need funny shaped rocks to be chased away).

Finally, we have to take into account that the technology was extant for a million years. Thus, we must conclude that its use was so basic and necessesary that it was used continuously through fat and lean times. Its hard to see how a fancy technology could survive for a million years when its not absolutely necessary and hunting with rocks probably wasnt common or necessary. [Also Consider that modern man with writing has lost technology in only a few thousand years, eg calculus. ]

It seems much more likely that its use would be more obvious so it could be 'reinvented' over the years by average people given no good way of preserving knowledge over time. So something already embedded in mans natural behavior toolset.

Seems to be that the older idea of a 'prosthetic fingernail' that is used for digging is more likely than hunting missile.
posted by Osmanthus at 5:11 AM on March 3, 2007

Picky, picky, picky. This is a terrifically telegraphic and thought provoking presentation of a complex set of questions. So much so that someone other than a pinhead (like me) might actually read it. Kudos.
posted by MarshallPoe at 5:36 AM on March 3, 2007

The role of a woman, as of all female mammals, is giving birth and caring for children. The role of a man is protection of his wife and children and guidance and discipline as the children grow up.

This is not science, this someone else's morality pretending to be science. There are plenty of books on evolution that are easier to read than Darwin's orginal that don't pull this moralizing crap.
posted by Red58 at 6:30 AM on March 3, 2007

He doesn't write well, he doesn't think well, and some of his pages seem to be trying to make a point but actually convey nothing.
posted by fydfyd at 7:02 AM on March 3, 2007

The more I read, the more it became clear to me how much was now known about human prehistory, but with how little intelligence it was being interpreted. It was typical that the only two really interesting conclusions in the Cambridge Encyclopedia were little snippets in boxes, the great areas of text in the book being occupied by simple accumulation of information, some of which was relevant, some of which was definitely not, but almost none of which was presented in an interesting or meaningful way from the point of view of understanding human prehistory.

This guy is a dumbass. He doesn't understand that we'll never know because all we can do is come up with theories that fit the data, there will never be a way to test those theories. New data shows up and we can pair away various theories, but there will always only be a finite amount of data.

This guy came up with a theory. Good for him. but his problem is asserting that his theory is the theory.

This guy is just another amateur thinker with too much time on his hands and an Internet connection. There are a lot of people like that.

The theories are fun to think about, but that's all they're really useful for.
posted by delmoi at 7:20 AM on March 3, 2007

Red58, these things of which you speak, these "books," what exactly are they?
posted by MarshallPoe at 7:33 AM on March 3, 2007

The most fundamental human moral values are universal. They are to be found in all but the most decadent societies.

Lost me right there. If moral values were universal, we wouldn't have to police them. The only universal values are survive + reproduce if you can. Everything else is our creation.

Can we stop with the evo/bio shit? It's just the Great Chain of Being (with Man the Protector at top of course) crap all over again.
posted by emjaybee at 8:00 AM on March 3, 2007

Very interesting read, thanks, Effigy2000.

The 8 short chapters under "Understanding Human Prehistory" give a good overview of Homo evolution. Sure, he makes up theories where there is not enough conclusive data, but this is what scientists do: offer a coherent explanation to a collection of data, until a better explanation comes along.

His pet theory for the handaxes has some good points: "A handaxe was a large stone chipped into an almond shape, with a sharp edge not only at the point, but also all round, so that it would have been awkward and dangerous to use as a hand-held cutting tool. " OK, this poses a legitimate question. But his explanation raises eyebrows: "Experiments by athletes expert at discus-throwing..." Anyone who have thrown a discus or seen athletes doing it knows that this throwing technique is useful for distance but not the precise aiming useful in hunting.

And then he becomes lost in morality in subsequent chapters, erring as far as predicting the extinction of Westerners: "In the not very long term, this is quite likely to result in extinction. Already, European birth rates are low and populations are being quite rapidly replaced in their homelands by incomers, mainly from Asia, who adhere to more traditional values." This is ridiculous: in a generation, sometimes less, immigrants have the same birth rate as the society they live in.

Too bad it ends in ridicule. The original 8 chapters still stand as a pleasant and informative overview.
posted by bru at 8:14 AM on March 3, 2007

This entire section is complete horseshit. The man is ridiculous and the section on "natural selection and natural religion" even more so. He's a proselytizing ass and all he's done is dumb down the subject matter to further a moral goal. Christ, what an asshole.
posted by disclaimer at 9:49 AM on March 3, 2007

Some interesting thoughts but, as noted above, a bit hit-and-miss.
For example:
People are slow runners and cannot overtake a fleeing prey.
True in a limited sense but actually we are cursorial animals and can walk down most other land mammals given time.
A minor point but quite important in the context of this article.
posted by speug at 1:23 PM on March 3, 2007

in a generation, sometimes less, immigrants have the same birth rate as the society they live in.

Any recorded circs where the rate ever gone up that we know of? I'm guessing not, for a variety of reasons, but who can say? Anyone?
posted by IndigoJones at 1:30 PM on March 3, 2007

Why was this linked? So we can make fun of the emotional projections of some sad asshole morning the loss of an imaginary golden age of family values patriarchy who's just finished reading the Big Book of Prehistory?
posted by cytherea at 2:40 PM on March 3, 2007

Yeah, this is nonsense and there's lots better writing on evolutionary psychology that has gone beyond the sexist and racist nonsense and the group selection errors.

The idea that animals do anything (especially something genetically self-destructive like infanticide) for the good of the group is not supported by the evidence.

Infanticides are common when a new male comes in, in order to get the females ready to bear *his* babies (this happens in langur monkeys, as was demonstrated by Sarah Hrdy's work) or when a female doesn't believe the current litter will survive and that she's more likely to successfully rear young later. But there's no evidence that animals will kill their own young to prevent an abstraction like "overpopulation" as an evolutionary strategy-- such animals would be rapidly outproduced by the "selfish gene" types who would protect their own young and let others kill theirs or do it for them and would thus die out.
posted by Maias at 3:05 PM on March 3, 2007

Although I'm very interested in scientific questions in general, I was an English major in college and most of my current scientific understanding comes from stuff like National Geographic and the occasional Time Magazine article (plus Metafilter, of course).

And with just a cursory scan through this guy's writings, I can find a bunch of examples of things that are so painfully oversimplified that they'd more accurately be described as "wrong," or perhaps even "goofy."

I did jump to the juicy bits about sex and religion first, though. Are the earlier chapters worth going back to?
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:47 PM on March 3, 2007

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and shallow research can be as well.

I'm somewhere in the middle of the comment spectrum on this - not ready to completely dismiss, but definitely not impressed.

But Maius, almost embedded in definition of sociality is the necessity of some behaviors that serve the group without serving the individual. The simplest example is the warning call.

Infanticide is trickier, and a good example of how the fitness of the individual gets wrapped up in these things. Infanticide in lions (or rodents for that matter) serves the killer, but does it not serve the longterm fitness of the group?
posted by DarbyMac at 6:44 AM on March 4, 2007

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