Rickety Cossacks and an Fi50 Reminder…


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Before we get into the meat (and bones) of today’s book, allow me to remind you that Fiction in 50 will be kicking off for June on Monday. This month’s prompt is…

 june fi50 button

…and I can’t wait to see your contributions. If you’d like to play along, just create a piece of fiction or poetry in fewer than 51 words then pop back here on Monday and add your link to the comments of my post. For more detailed information about the challenge, just click on the large attractive Fi50 button at the beginning of this post.

Now on to the bookishness! Today’s book was a strange choice for me given that I don’t really know much about paleoanthropology….hardly anything in fact…but I was drawn in by the exciting cover, chuckle-worthy title and general “that sounds quite interesting” vibe of the whole package. The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack and Other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution by Ian Tattersall is a going-over of the history of human paleoanthropology with an eye to debunking (or at least, highlighting) the specious reasoning that seems almost inherent in some historical views of human evolution as a process.   I was lucky enough to receive a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. Note the armchair as an indication of my intention to submit this tome for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader.

Without further faffing about, here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

In his new book The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack, human paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall argues that a long tradition of “human exceptionalism” in paleoanthropology has distorted the picture of human evolution. Drawing partly on his own career–from young scientist in awe of his elders to crotchety elder statesman–Tattersall offers an idiosyncratic look at the competitive world of paleoanthropology, beginning with Charles Darwin 150 years ago, and continuing through the Leakey dynasty in Africa, and concluding with the latest astonishing findings in the Caucasus.

The book’s title refers to the 1856 discovery of a clearly very old skull cap in Germany’s Neander Valley. The possessor had a brain as large as a modern human, but a heavy low braincase with a prominent brow ridge. Scientists tried hard to explain away the inconvenient possibility that this was not actually our direct relative. One extreme interpretation suggested that the preserved leg bones were curved by both rickets, and by a life on horseback. The pain of the unfortunate individual’s affliction had caused him to chronically furrow his brow in agony, leading to the excessive development of bone above the eye sockets. The subsequent history of human evolutionary studies is full of similarly fanciful interpretations.

With tact and humor, Tattersall concludes that we are not the perfected products of natural processes, but instead the result of substantial doses of random happenstance.

rickety cossack

Let me say straight off that I found this book to be informative, engaging and generally thought-provoking. I suspect, however, that I am not the target audience for this tome, given that the content seemed to be pitched at a reader with slightly more prior knowledge in this field than I currently possess. Don’t get me wrong, if you don’t know very much about the history of evolution and you think this book sounds interesting, I would DEFINITELY recommend that you pick it up, but I was mildly surprised to note how technical the content turned out to be. On the other hand, my Kindle dictionary feature got a cracking workout, which I always enjoy.

Essentially, after a short introduction featuring lemurs and an unexpected coup, Tattersall takes the reader from the early years of paleoanthropology, during which little was known and much was surmised (and just plain old made-up!) about discovered remains and what these remains meant for how modern humans came about, to current scientific practice in dating remains and hypothesising about evolutionary processes. For each historical period, Tattersall introduces the reader to the main players on the evolutionary scene and the theories that they endorsed, with detailed examination of their background to establish the context in which their theories were developed. Clearly, this is an author that knows his stuff and has put together a comprehensive critique of the assumptions that have historically influenced the way in which people think about human evolution.

Now, my next criticism is going to sound a akin to someone ordering sushi and complaining it doesn’t taste like pizza, but I expected this book to be funny. That might sound odd to those who regularly read such scientificky books, but I feel I was misled by the highly amusing “Rickety Cossack” theory and expected that the book would have a lighter tone. It doesn’t. And to me this was mildly disappointing. On the positive side though, I do feel like I gained a solid base of knowledge about human evolution and the current theories and pitfalls of assumption that I did not have prior to reading this book.

The other desire that made me feel a bit childish while reading this was that of wanting more illustrations. Throughout the book there are a few comparative drawings depicting various human fossils to which the book alludes, but given that I am a newbie in this subject area, I desperately wanted more visual information. A map, for instance, showing where each of the bits were discovered would have been incredibly helpful, as I did have a bit of trouble keeping the place names straight in relation to the fancy names that were given to different sets of remains. Again, I suspect Tattersall was aiming for a reader with slightly more knowledge in the area than I, but all the same, a bit of visual prompting would have enhanced my reading experience no end.

Overall, if not for the amusing title and blurb anecdote, I doubt I would have picked this book up. It didn’t turn out to be what I was expecting, but I still had an enjoyable, brain-stretching experience while reading it. I’m not sure whether someone more deeply versed in this particular subject area would feel the same, but if you are a paleoanthropogical novice with a desire to enrich your knowledge in this area, then I recommend riding into battle with Tattersall and his rickety Cossack.

Progress toward Nonfiction Reading Challenge goal: 7/10

Until next time,