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Book Review: How Homo Became Sapiens

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About a month ago, the University of Alaska Fairbanks hosted the Evolution 2005 conference. With several hundred speakers over the course of four days, it proved to be the largest conference ever held at the University. As a member of the IT group tasked with making sure the equipment worked correctly, I was a bit of a captive audience.

Aside from the talks and seminars, there were a large number of book vendors as well. While most of these books ranged in topic from text books on invertebrates to thick encyclopedic volumes on biological evolutionary theory, one thin text caught my eye.

As a student of psychology I was somewhat disappointed at the utter lack of books on evolutionary psychology. However, at the Oxford University Press vendor booth, a small book in an unremarkable white cover (aside from the orangutan staring down at you) proved to be the only evolutionary psychology book I could find.

How Homo Became Sapiens by Peter Gardenfors is a journey through the evolution of thinking. His meta-analysis of a large body of research helps pave the way toward understanding the biological and social steps involved in our mental evolution.

Gardenfors pays particular attention to the various mental simulators that play about in our heads. Before we take an action these simulators run through the possible outcomes, allowing us to choose the proper course. Mental simulators are not just the realm of man, however, but were just one step in our evolution.

The book takes a step-by-step approach, in order of evolutionary history, comparing and contrasting to other animals in the world, particularly chimpanzees and bonobos, but also cats, dogs, and other animals we wouldn’t immediately guess at. By this method he shows that being self-aware isn’t so uncommon, but being you-aware, or able to see yourself through the eyes of others, becomes increasingly uncommon as you ascend the ladder of psychological evolution.

In the final chapters, he takes a look at language, both spoken and written, as we break into an area that appears, at least on its surface, to be uniquely human. While many animals do have unique vocalizations, it appears that only humans have a specific grammar, and certainly written language. We have the ability to abstract our thinking into symbols and iconography. That language itself evolves, writing styles change, shows that human thinking can change in very short spans of time.

This book is a definite must for anyone just beginning their journey into evolutionary psychology. The sheer number of studies cited in this book provides an excellent springboard for further reading.

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  • Isn’t that a perfect image on the cover? It matches the old primate-psychology tale in which the researchers filled a room with ape-toys, escorted the test subject inside and shut the door. When they bent to the keyhole to find out which toy he would play with first, they found a large brown eye looking back at them…

  • Great review, thanks. I’ve just added this to my week’s library list.