Man, The Promising Primate


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The Conditions of Human Evolution, Second edition

Peter J. Wilson

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In spite of recent advances in the study of evolution, scholars have shied away from the most intriguing problem of all—how and why animal nature became human nature.  In confronting this problem, Peter Wilson leads his readers on a fascinating exploration.  What made it possible, he asks, for one genus of the order Primates, living in Africa in the Plio-Pleistocene era, to become human and to develop culture?  Continuing the tradition of bold speculation fathered by the philosophical anthropology of Hobbes and Rousseau, Wilson seeks to unravel the evidence for such basic human adaptations as self-conscious thought, symbolic kinship, ritual behavior, and objective reasoning.


While genetics may account for potentialities and limits, Wilson argues that the actual evolution of a species can be understood only in relation to the changing conditions of its environment.  Rejecting the idea of a human evolutionary leap as contradicting Darwin’s theory, Wilson shows how the continuity of the genus Homo within the order Primates is to be found in generalization.  Man was and is a promising primate, of endless potential coupled with a vulnerable need to exchange promises.  From these emerge kinship systems, society, and culture.


This incisive and gracefully written book offers both a new synthesis and a fresh starting point for evolutionists in several disciplines.  Its central argument and special insights—into fatherhood, the incest taboo, marriage, and the relation of food to thought—challenge current emphasis on biogenetic determinism and provide a new approach to anthropological theorizing. 

"A fascinating monograph on the conditions of human evolution and the conditions required by it . . . . This is first-rate scientific speculation—lucid and straightforward."—New Yorker

"This is an excellent analysis, and though it goes to the heart of issues in genetics and anthropology, it is eminently accessible for the general reader."—ALA Booklist

"[Wilson's] logic and the answers that flow from it provide a new and interesting perspective of human evolution. This is 'must' reading for anyone interested in the subject."—Frances P. Schulter-Ellis, AAAS Science Books & Films

"Peter Wilson's Man: The Promising Primate will help rekindle the bright flame of philosophical anthropology, for he has written an uncommonly stimulating book in the great tradition of Hobbes, Monboddo, Kames, Hutcheson, Hume, Ferguson, and Rousseau. Wilson writes with precision, clarity, and authority. . . . His book is full of original ideas and valuable insights. Moreover, it constitutes one of the best correctives to the sociobiological dogma that has appeared in recent years."—Ashley Montagu, New Republic

"An interesting, easily readable, and somewhat provocative essay in the best tradition of philosophical anthropology."—Barnaby B. Barratt, Review of Psychoanalytic Books

"A brilliant book, full of original insights and stimulating ideas concerning the origin of the family, marriage, kinship, fatherhood, and much else relating the human evolution."—Ashley Montagu

"Man, the Promising Primate helped me to understand how our precursors of the Old Stone Age managed to outdo other creatures which were physically more powerful because more specialized, but which did not have for this reason the biological inducement to evolve by sharing their wits. I find it rather pleasant to realize that, even in the distant geological past, the race was not necessarily to the swift."—René Dubos

"Makes a significant contribution to our endless nature-nurture concerns and raises issues of paramount importance to all the disciplines concerned with evolution."—Albert J. Solnit, M.D.

"In a field in which readers are constantly caught between the Scylla of cultural materialism and the Charybdis of genetic determinism, it is promising—and stimulating—to find the eclectic and sophisticated stance of a man in the middle."—The Kirkus Review

"[Wilson] has developed a sparkling new set of ideas about kinship, the family, male-female relations, and fatherhood that may come in time to have a resounding impact. Skillfully drawn from philosophy, primate studies, human biology, and social anthropology, his argument . . . is one that must be reckoned with by all those interested in understanding just what it means to be human."—Library Journal

"[Wilson] brings excitement and imagination to his synthesis of efforts to think about old questions in a new way, and in Man, the Promising Primate, he has written a very enjoyable book."—Howard E. Gruber, New York Times Book Review

"This nugget of a book should be welcomed by anyone who has been confused by the sociobiology debate and required reading for anyone who has taken sides. In discussing the evolutionary basis of culture, Wilson brings us closer to a holistic understanding of humanness. His closely reasoned essay is a welcome contribution."—Ethics

"Admirable, serious but also stimulating, ingeniously argued, willing to recognize both primate capabilities and human peculiarities, and (not least of its virtues) well written and not too long. . . . He has taken more trouble than many to present a balanced view of early human societies. . . . .His book deserves to be read by anyone with an interest in its theme."—Robert Attenborough, Nature (British Journal)

"Wilson provides an impressive series of arguments to describe and explain the way in which the major dimensions of culture emerged out of a nonhuman background. . . . The latter description is derived from a careful reading of the literature on infrahuman primates and on the paleontological evidence in Africa and Europe. The arguments are admittedly coherent, and do accord with the overall evidential picture."—Richard N. Adams, Social Science Quarterly
ISBN: 9780300029888
Publication Date: September 10, 1983
220 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2