Humanity's Descent

Overview

In this groundbreaking book, Rick Potts uncovers the ecology of our earliest forebears, explores their survival and extinction, and tells the drama of human evolution as it has never been told before. Potts, internationally known for his innovative excavations of early archeological sites, brilliantly connects our planet's past with the environmental dilemmas we now face, showing how ancient humans responded to the forces of nature and survived long periods of dramatic habitat disturbance. In the end, Humanity's ...
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Clark, Jennifer 1961 Trade paperback New. No dust jacket as issued. Inventory mark on the edge. Glued binding. 325 p. Audience: General/trade.

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Overview

In this groundbreaking book, Rick Potts uncovers the ecology of our earliest forebears, explores their survival and extinction, and tells the drama of human evolution as it has never been told before. Potts, internationally known for his innovative excavations of early archeological sites, brilliantly connects our planet's past with the environmental dilemmas we now face, showing how ancient humans responded to the forces of nature and survived long periods of dramatic habitat disturbance. In the end, Humanity's Descent offers a provocative statement about the present status of our species and its institutions. Potts convincingly explains why prevailing ideals of economic growth and environmental preservation are based on mistaken, short-term views of the natural world. Our future lies, as it always has, in our ability to tolerate environmental insult and to revise our relationship with nature.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Who are we and where have we come from? Potts, director of the Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins Program, offers an academic study tracing humanity's ancestors and the forces that led to our dominance on Earth. He argues persuasively, if redundantly, that environmental instability has been the single constant shaping our interaction with nature. He is at his best when discussing characteristics that may make us unique in the animal kingdom: our acquisition of language and culture, as well as our capacity to plan for the future, particularly with respect to maintaining a viable food supply. Unfortunately, Potts concludes the book by attempting to apply his anthropological, archeological and paleontological hypotheses to current environmental issues such as global warming, habitat loss and species extinction; his treatment of both environmentalists and their opponents is too simplistic. Author tour. (May)
Library Journal
Potts, the director of the Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins program, proposes that climatic forces are always at work in the world and that ecological stability is a misnomer. Exploring the relationship of human and animal life with nature in an attempt to explain evolutionary patterns, he notes that similar evolutionary paths are traveled by a wide variety of plants and animals, even by those on isolated continents. Like Steven Stanley in Children of the Ice Age (LJ 4/15/96 ), Potts proposes that the evolutionary advantage of Homo sapiens lies in the ability to adjust constantly to a changing environment. Yet he goes further by exploring this premise with many other species, concluding that the earth's ecology is constantly changing. Numerous animal and plant species have flourished for thousands of years only to become extinct at some point when they could no longer meet the challenge of a changing environment. Potts has presented a truly interesting hypothesis that he supports throughout with good examples. Recommended for most libraries.-Gloria Maxwell, Kansas City P.L., Kansas
Kirkus Reviews
How has the ebb and flow of the environment affected the evolution of humans, and how has the path of our evolution affected our attitude toward nature? Potts, of the Smithsonian Institution, offers some provocative ideas in a wide-ranging, recondite study.

To understand "how the kiln of evolution forged our apparent domination," he argues that we must pay more attention to the history of environmental change. This is not a recycled version of the old brand of environmental determinism, which argued that nature had crafted every facet of humanity. Instead, it is a theory attempting to frame humans within the context of an environment that is not static, in which the flux of nature elicits creative responses. He delves into the evolution of plants and animals, guided by the conditions these organisms face (climate, habitat, the impact of other species and our own) and seeking in such encounters the environmental genesis of human qualities. Everywhere he finds evidence of how environmental change repeatedly posed challenges to our ancestors, problems that were met with increasingly sophisticated responses: symbolic thought, creativity and imagination, complex social institutions, reciprocity and exchange. Potts can be numbingly rarified—tracking changes in sea level, monitoring population density and how it affects the arrangement of plants and animals—but he can also be lucid and animated, as when poking holes in current archaeological and anthroplogical theories assuming stable environments over the course of human evolution. He may well be on the right track, but as Potts admits, all of this begs the question of how to resolve our current environmental conundrums.

Thus his fitting and ambiguous concluding note. We have to reengage with the natural world, he argues, and embrace the heady mix of our responsibilities: accepting the need to sometimes counter nature's flow in order to preserve our species, yet always be mindful of the long-term consequences.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380715237
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/28/1997
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Table of Contents

Ch. I Origin 1
Ch. II Dominion 16
Ch. III Nature's Alteration 45
Ch. IV Experiments in Being Human 79
Ch. V Survival of the Generalist 137
Ch. VI A New View of Nature 224
Ch. VII The Litmus Test 255
Notes 281
Acknowledgements 301
Index 303
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