Friday, January 27, 2017

Friday Book Report: Lowly Origin

Jonathan Kingdon’s book Lowly Origin traces the evolution of humans.  He contends that what used to be perceived as a linear process is actually more of a family bush with many branches, some leading to extinction rather than to our present existence.  It is an interesting story, framed within an ecological and social context around the question of what brought us to stand up.

Two concepts that are teased out in the text seem particularly relevant to our current fitness situation (note:  I am using the word in the usual context for this blog, not in the evolutionary sense).  One is that our major heritage, as animals, is as opportunists and niche-swipers.  We are not specialized, particularly, in our bodies, but in our minds, where we recognize and exploit resources first discovered by other animals.  This makes us almost endlessly adaptable, which is great; we can learn to cope with many different challenges.  It also means that we have to be mindful of the consequences of our choices and their impact on other creatures, both human and otherwise.  Fitness is about living into our potential.

The second concept arises from the first.  Our experience of the world, given our relatively unspecialized forms, is mediated through technology.  For early humans, this meant that we used tools to make food accessible to us (stones, sticks, knives, fire).  This habit of being has percolated well beyond the survival level.  Perhaps it is not surprising that we have become smart phone addicts given that we evolved in concert with technology.  Again, this evolutionary habit provides us tremendous opportunity for growth and encloses within it a dangerous potential for abuse via disconnect from the rest of the world.

In our current climate, I can wholeheartedly say that it is a pleasure to read about real research and thoughtful theorizing.  If nothing else, this book is good for our scientific fitness as we work to survive the very concept of alternative facts.

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