The Last Lost World: Ice Ages, Human Origins, and the Invention of the Pleistocene

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Overview

An enlightening investigation of the Pleistocene’s dual character as a geologic time—and as a cultural idea

The Pleistocene is the epoch of geologic time closest to our own. It’s a time of ice ages, global migrations, and mass extinctions—of woolly rhinos, mammoths, giant ground sloths, and not least early species of Homo. It’s the world that created ours.

But outside that environmental story there exists a parallel narrative that describes how...

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The Last Lost World: Ice Ages, Human Origins, and the Invention of the Pleistocene

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Overview

An enlightening investigation of the Pleistocene’s dual character as a geologic time—and as a cultural idea

The Pleistocene is the epoch of geologic time closest to our own. It’s a time of ice ages, global migrations, and mass extinctions—of woolly rhinos, mammoths, giant ground sloths, and not least early species of Homo. It’s the world that created ours.

But outside that environmental story there exists a parallel narrative that describes how our ideas about the Pleistocene have emerged. This story explains the place of the Pleistocene in shaping intellectual culture, and the role of a rapidly evolving culture in creating the idea of the Pleistocene and in establishing its dimensions. This second story addresses how the epoch, its Earth-shaping events, and its creatures, both those that survived and those that disappeared, helped kindle new sciences and a new origins story as the sciences split from the humanities as a way of looking at the past.

Ultimately, it is the story of how the dominant creature to emerge from the frost-and-fire world of the Pleistocene came to understand its place in the scheme of things. A remarkable synthesis of science and history, The Last Lost World describes the world that made our modern one.

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Editorial Reviews

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With a span of more than two and half million years, the Pleistocene epoch is a niche that frames many discussions about evolution, extinctions, and human origins. Ending less than 12,000 years ago, this geological period encompasses major Earth-changing events that include radical climate shifts, massive global species migrations, extinctions, and adaptations. This timely narrative by award-winning author Stephen Pyne (Voyager; Year of the Fires; How the Canyon Became Grand) and his daughter Lydia Pyne describes not only this expansive epoch, but also how the concept of the Pleistocene has shaped our thinking about the history of our planet. Authoritative and readable.

Publishers Weekly
Father and daughter historians Lydia Pyne (Drexel University) and Stephen Pyne (Year of the Fires) argue that, in the 19th century, with the development of the notion of the Pleistocene era—from 2.6 million years ago to about 10,000–12,000 years ago, toward the end of which Homo sapiens emerged—science split from the humanities because scientists became interested only in collecting data and not constructing narratives, which supply the meaning and moral purpose most people crave. Lydia Pyne, whose first-person account opens the book, lets her background in history color her approach to science. After a brief scientific account of the Pleistocene, the book launches into a historical and philosophical look at how we have articulated the meaning of this geological period. But the analysis fails due partly to academic writing (“The instinct, that is, is to turn evolutionary opportunism into narrative surety and to stiffen phylogenic uncertainty into the crisp lines of story”). But it’s also hampered by a confusion between the intent of scientists and the human need for moral understanding of, for instance, what makes us human. This is a difficult book, not well suited to a general audience. (June)
Library Journal
Stephen Pyne (history, Arizona State Univ.; Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction) and his daughter Lydia (lecturer, history of science, Drexel Univ.) reveal how Africa served as a continental refugium during the Pleistocene era. Least affected by ice, most adapted to hominids, Africa lost less than 25 percent of its megafauna. In contrast, South America, whose relatively recent link to North America helped trigger the Ice Ages, lost more than 85 percent. The world that resulted was shaped by climate and by the hominids that came out of Africa. The Pynes then hold a mirror to the history of scientific thought on the Pleistocene era. Influenced by the culture of their time, scientists created then discarded evolutionary tropes such as the great chain of being, the tree of life, the missing link, etc. Using examples from Plato to philosopher Karl Popper, they show how culture shapes science and our view of the world. VERDICT Written in clear, supple prose, this title will interest historians, anthropologists, and anyone fascinated by the Ice Ages, human evolution, and the history of science and culture.—Michal Strutin, Santa Clara Univ. Lib., CA
Kirkus Reviews
Lasting from about 3 million to 10,000 years ago, the Pleistocene is both a geological epoch and an idea, write science historians Stephen Pyne (Voyager: Exploration, Space, and the Third Great Age of Discovery, 2011, etc.) and his daughter Lydia, who proceed to deliver a perceptive account of both. The geological story opens as the unusually wet, warm and homogenized Earth of the Miocene and Pliocene epochs segued into a cooler, drier and more fragmented Pleistocene. Rising mountains and new land bridges (Panama, the Bering Strait) forced a realignment of planetary climate. Ice ages waxed and waned. Many hominid species wandered Africa; several wandered north, but by 50,000 years ago, all except ours had vanished. The idea of the Pleistocene began in the 17th century with the first natural philosophers ("scientist" was a 19th-century invention). Rocks and fossils had been known for millennia, but these men looked with a critical eye. By the 1700s it was obvious that the Earth was old. During the 1800s, this age lengthened and subdivisions proliferated as scientists deciphered sedimentary rock strata, precisely classified fossils, and uncovered the effects of glaciation. After 1900, they argued over African climate change and proliferating hominid species, reveling in a flood of new information from fossil discoveries, plate tectonics, deep ocean cores and vastly improved chemical and radiometric dating. The idea is still evolving. Readers with a good introduction to the subject under their belt--e.g., Ian Tattersall's Masters of the Planet (2012)--will be best prepared to absorb this rich but often dense flood of geologic, geographic, anthropologic and philosophical analyses of recent evolution.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670023639
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/14/2012
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.12 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

Lydia V. Pyne is a lecturer at Drexel University. She has an MA and PhD in the history and philosophy of science, and an MA degree in anthropology.

Her father, Stephen J. Pyne, is a historian in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. He is the award-winning author of Voyager, Year of the Fires, and How the Canyon Became Grand.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 25, 2013

    very good

    very good

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2013

    Not recommend.

    I was very diappointed in this book. It was long on concepts and language but short on substance.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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