Narratives of Human Evolution


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Marie L. Landau

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In the notoriously controversial field of paleoanthropology Misia Landau has found a hidden level of agreement among theories of human evolution. According to Landau, these theories are versions of the universal hero tale in folklore and myth. The narratives all have similar structures, featuring a humble hero (in theories of evolution it is a nonhuman primate) who departs on a journey (leaves his native habitat), receives essential aid or equipment from a donor figure (through evolutionary principles such as natural selection or orthogenesis), goes through tests (imposed by competitors, harsh climate, or predators), and finally arrives at a higher (that is, more human) state.


Analyzing classic texts on evolution by Darwin, Keith, and Elliott Smith, as well as more recent authors by scholars such as Dart, Robinson, Tobias, and Johanson, Landau reveals not only their common narrative form but also how this form accommodates differences in meaning—widely varying sequences of events, heroes, and donors. Landau shows how interpretations of the fossil record differ according to what the anthropologist believes it the primary evolutionary agent. She concludes that scientists have much to gain from an awareness that they are tellers of stories. An understanding of narrative, she argues, can provide tools for creating new scientific theories as well as for analyzing old ones. Her book will be entertaining and enlightening for both general readers and scholars.

"An important book that will lead anthropologists to reexamine the reasons for their beliefs and to a more rigorous evaluation of data and their implications."—Andrew Hill, Yale University

"It is rare to read a book of such abstract reification and be disappointed only because it ends! It is like some wonderfully insightful drama reflecting not only the deepest questions common to its audience, but also providing unexpected answers that, upon reflection, are imaginatively rich and profoundly true. This is certainly must reading for individuals in the field of anthropology, those interested in the nature of scientific inquiry, and, perhaps most importantly, anybody interested in the nature of human inquiry itself."—Science Books and Films

"In Narratives of Human Evolution, the paleoanthropologist-cum-literary-critic Misia Landau rescues the art of anthropological storytelling by analysing just how complex these stories really are and what their underlying structures reveal about the basic evolutionary and social principles of their authors. . . . Landau's approach to paleoanthropology is informative and entertaining. Her analyses of the writings of Huxley, Darwin, Haeckel, Keith, and Elliot Smith are incisive and provocative, and lay bare the biases that each brought to their narratives. . . . A literate, thought-provoking explication of this really difficult science."—Glenn C. Conroy, Nature

"This book . . . is interesting for the general reader as a new way of looking at the prejudices of paleoanthropologists and their consequences and for the specialist as a cautionary tale. It is also, quite simply, well written and a good read."—Colin P. Groves, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews

"Landau's discussions of controversies in paleoanthropology . . . are both informed and lucid."—David L. Hull, Science

"A book that paleoanthropologists must take seriously as we attempt to sort out cultural biases in science."—Laurie R. Godfrey and John R. Cole, American Journal of Physical Anthropology

"Landau's arguments in Narratives of Human Evolution are bold and original, and they stimulate the reader to the in deeply about the problem of knowledge. She writes in a lucid and engaging style that is refreshingly free of literary and technical jargon."—V.B. Smocovitis, Journal of the History of Biology
ISBN: 9780300054316
Publication Date: March 11, 1993
215 pages, x