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Evolution and The Last Ape Standing

on Fri, 02/01/2013 - 10:51

At the start of the third season of the CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory, theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper has a falling out with his Pasadena-based colleagues and moves back home to Texas. “I will spend the rest of my life here in Texas, trying to teach evolution to creationists,” he explains. Sheldon’s mother, however, takes exception to his new-found vocation, suggesting that creationism is just as valid as the concept of evolution. “Evolution isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact,” he retorts, to which his mother replies, “And that’s your opinion.” The verbal exchange ends there, but it is enough to convince Sheldon Cooper that maybe he is better off in Pasadena, California, after all.

Chip Walter, meanwhile, is a Pittsburgher who has held an adjunct professorship at Carnegie Mellon University and served as a CNN bureau chief and PBS documentarian. Walter is currently author-in-residence at the Mellon Institute at CMU, and his fourth book, Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived, was released on January 29, 2013. Just as with Sheldon Cooper, evolution is a “fact” for Chip Walter, and his latest tome explores the estimated twenty-seven human species that evolved thousands of years ago and how only one—Homo sapiens—survived.

“The root of the answer lies in our long childhood,” Walter explains in a Wall Street Journal essay published three days before the release of Last Ape Standing. “No other primate has ever experienced a childhood as lengthy as Homo sapiens. It’s during our childhoods that we Homo sapiens distance ourselves from the commands of our genes and develop the unique traits that make each of us the charming and talented people we grow up to be. More than any other animal’s, our brain develops outside the womb, and those early experiences profoundly shape our personalities and view of the world. In the end, it makes us remarkably good problem-solvers—the ultimate survival skill.”

In the Wall Street Journal, Chip Walter also offers an explanation as to why Neanderthals—who were once thought to be our ancestors—were less fortunate. “The best fossil and DNA evidence today indicates it was a rare Neanderthal who lived past the ripe old age of 35,” he writes. “Cold, disease, injury and the big-cat predators of Eurasia took their toll. Hunts were particularly dangerous because Neanderthals never developed a spear they could throw. Instead, they seem to have wrestled large prey down by stabbing them with 15-foot spears in a kind of savage version of pin the tail on the bison. The number of broken (and healed) fossilized bones that Neanderthals left behind attests to the batterings they took.”

Of course it is more complex than the brief overview that Chip Walter offers in the Wall Street Journal, and Last Ape Standing contains a more in-depth examination of not only Homo sapiens and Neanderthals but the “Hobbits” of Indonesia, the Denisovans of Siberia and the Red Deer Cave tribe of China. Overall, it just the type of book that Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory would have found useful if he had indeed devoted his life to teaching evolution deep in the heart of Texas.

Anthony Letizia (February 1, 2013)

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