When I picked up The Tales Teeth Tell, the first thing I thought was: “Another book on fossil teeth?” After reviewing Ungar’s Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins in 2017 I was worried this might be more of the same. Was I ever wrong! Professor in human evolutionary biology Tanya M. Smith here shows there is a lot more to say about human teeth and their evolution.
“Why, of all the species that have ever existed, have only us humans reached this unparalleled level of social organisation?” Sounds familiar? I indeed opened my review of E.O. Wilson’s recent book Genesis: On the Deep Origin of Societies with almost these exact words. Where that book (quite literally) fell a bit short of the intended mark, biologist Mark W. Moffett here delivers a sprawling big history book that considers almost the same question. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise, for Wilson has been Moffett’s mentor.
Primaeval, pristine, playground of Indiana Jones, home to ancient ruins and primitive tribes – nothings says wilderness more than tropical rainforests. They have had a firm grip on our collective imagination for centuries as the antithesis of civilization. But after reading archaeologist Patrick Roberts’s Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity, it seems my introduction is a load of lyrical rubbish. Synthesizing an enormous body of scientific literature, this book dispels the Victorian-era explorer-mystique to reveal a picture that is far more fascinating.
Humans. How is it that you can herd 200 of them into an aeroplane without a riot erupting, while they also commit unspeakable atrocities such as torture, genocide, and war? Anthropologist Richard Wrangham calls it the goodness paradox. In this well-reasoned book, he surveys research from a range of disciplines to try and answer why humans show this odd combination of intense calm in normal social interactions and a ready willingness to kill under certain other circumstances.
History books tend to portray the transition of humans as hunter-gatherers to farmers – and with it the rise of cities, states and what we think of as civilization at large – as one of progress and improvement. But with Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott challenges this narrative. That our switch to an existence as sedentary farmers impacted our health is something I was familiar with from palaeopathological findings, see for example Ungar’s Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins or Hassett’s Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death. But Scott tackles this subject from many angles, summarising accumulating archaeological and historical evidence to provide a fine counter-narrative.
As mentioned previously in my review of Barbara King’s Evolving God, religion is a pervasive phenomenon, and many scholars have put forward explanations of how, when, and why it arose. The arguments King put forth did not convince me that religion is anything more than a by-product of our evolution. Apparently, so did Darwin. Though believers often like to point out Darwin was a Christian too, he struggled to reconcile the two and ultimately lost his faith. American psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey gracefully acknowledges this intellectual heritage and here updates this idea, putting forth the convincing argument that religion arose as a by-product of brain evolution.
With his new book, The Creative Spark, Agustín Fuentes, a primatologist and anthropologist currently at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, boldly puts forth the idea that what makes humans special is creativity. The ability of humans to switch back and forth between considering what is, and dreaming of what might be, and to then put these thoughts into actions (often collaboratively), has brought us a very long way from our primate origins to the tool-wielding, world-shaping force of nature of today. Along the way, Fuentes wants to do away with some of the dominant narratives regarding human evolution today, or rather, he thinks most of them oversimplify things and lead to distortions in our thinking. Instead, he presents a new synthesis that places creativity front and centre stage as being the most important mechanism that helped us overcome challenges.
“Show me your teeth and I will tell you who you are” Cuvier is reported to have said. That, in short, is the brief of this book. Drawing on a range of disciplines – such as archaeology, palaeoclimatology, materials science, primatology, anthropology and evolutionary biology – this book weaves a compelling narrative of what our teeth, and those of our ancestors, can tell us about our past diets, and how we came to be the species we are today. Why teeth? Because, as Ungar contends, teeth are special.