The Dawn of Human Culture Book Review
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About the Book
The Dawn of Human Culture by Richard G. Klein with Blake Edgar was published by John Wiley & Sons, New York, in 2002. Dr. Klein is Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Stanford. He received a Ph.D. at University of Chicago in 1966 and is a well-known paleoanthropologist.
Dr. Klein wrote much of the technical literature that underlies this popular-level work. It was drafted by Edgar and rewritten by Klein.1 In the first chapter, the authors provide their motivation for writing: “Our aims in this book are to outline the evidence for human anatomical and behavioral evolution before 50,000 years ago and to explore the circumstances surrounding the behavioral revolution that occurred afterwards”2 Therefore, the authors’ motivation in writing this book is to provide a popular level account of the evolutionary Out of Africa model of human origins.
The central thesis of The Dawn of Human Culture is that hominids evolved by “punctuated equilibrium”, in which evolution occurs suddenly and infrequently, until they became anatomically modern humans about 100,000 years ago and behaviorally modern humans 50,000 years ago.3 The “dawn of human culture” spoken of by the title of the book is this behavioral and cultural revolution noted by paleoanthropology in which humans seem to rapidly become the equivalent of present-day humans in intelligence, language, art, and culture.
The Out of Africa model espoused by Klein and Edgar postulates that hominid creatures, perhaps in Eastern Africa, rapidly evolved into anatomically modern humans. After some time, these humans were behaviorally modern as well. Then, from their location in Africa, these humans rapidly spread out to Europe, Asia, and Australia. They eventually reached the Americas and Pacific islands such as Hawaii and Japan as well.
This book is organized into chapters, each covers a period of human evolution. The early and middle chapters cover the life, culture, and fossil record of Australopithecines and hominid creatures. In short, the paleoanthropological record of these early hominids. The later chapters cover the anatomically modern humans and the change to behaviorally modern humans.
Klein and Edgar’s writing style is engaging and the book is filled with wonderful illustrations and maps of the fossil and cultural record. The book is a page turner as the authors write of these hominids, and they clearly know their material. The storytelling style makes the book an easy read for the popular-level reader, and the chapters are well divided to provide the reader a progression of time they can follow.
The ease of reading is worthless unless the scholarship is good, and Klein is a top-notch scholar. The authors provide laymen insight into modern scholarship’s thoughts on the fossil record. They have chapters on every period (assuming the punctuated equilibrium model is correct) of hominid fossils from about 7 million years ago to 50,000 years ago. The authors’ support their Out of Africa interpretation with data and use the research of other scholars in support of their view. Klein and Edgar do well building their interpretation of the fossil record into the OOA model.
The authors make their case strictly using paleoanthropological data. Since this is Klein’s field, this is certainly unsurprising. However, there is great evidence for the Out of Africa model from molecular biology, and this was not covered at all. Using only the fossil and culture record, the authors make their case well, but their argument could have been strengthened by merely mentioning this additional line of evidence.
The authors write the book to a layman audience, and anyone at a high-school level and above can engage with the book. However, ultimately The Dawn of Human Culture does feel like a story. There are no citations in the book; the authors write about others’ work and provide a list of selected readings, but this is not a book for scholars. Critics should engage Klein’s scholarly work.
The mechanisms of the favored evolutionary model is never explained in The Dawn of Human Culture. The authors explain how the data supports their punctuated equilibrium model of evolution, which contrasts with the neo-darwinian model. While the neo-darwinian model is predicated on slow, gradual changes, the punctuated equilibrium model uses quick changes followed by periods of stasis. The authors’ use of the punctuated equilibrium model makes sense based on the data as laid out by their book, but the authors never explain how punctuated equilibrium works. They never provide a mechanism by which their chosen model creates the data they interpret.
The Dawn of Human Culture is 14 years old, and some of the data by which the authors draw their conclusions is now outdated. For example, the authors state that modern humans appeared anatomically before they became behaviorally modern – this is a large part of the book. In the last decade and a half, however, scientists have pushed back the date of behavioral modernity to become roughly equivalent with the date for anatomical modernity. This outdates at least the last two chapters of the book covering these two topics. One is called “Body Before Behavior”, a theory that has been shown possibly false. Current readers should keep in mind that paleoanthropology is still a fast-moving field, and any book more than a decade old is bound to be at least somewhat outdated.
I give The Dawn of Human Culture a slight recommendation.
This book, with no citations and little detailed discussion of the data, is targeted at the layman. Anyone at a high-school level and above can read and comprehend this book; it is laid-out well, engaging, and enjoyable. However, the lack of citations and discussion of opposing views means that for the educated person, there is less here.
To the creationist: Klein is one of the leading secular evolutionists on the planet. Learning about how and why the OOA model and punctuated equilibrium have become prominent secular theories is important. For the creationist scholar, this is not the best book to engage with.
To the theistic evolutionist and secular evolutionist: this is a well-written book explaining the current theories of evolution, though it is somewhat out of date. If you want a book from the secular evolution perspective on human origins that anyone can read and enjoy, however, I do recommend The Dawn of Human Culture.
Therefore, I overall give the book a slight recommendation because it is outdated and because there is little engagement with opposing views or data. To those who are not interested in reading college-level material, the book gets a higher recommendation.