The idea of a missing link between humanity and our animal ancestors predates evolution and popular science and actually has religious roots in the deist concept of the Great Chain of Being. Yet, the metaphor has lodged itself in the contemporary imagination, and new fossil discoveries are often hailed in headlines as revealing the elusive transitional step, the moment when we stopped being "animal" and started being "human."
In The Accidental Species, Henry Gee, longtime palaeontology editor at Nature, takes aim at this misleading notion, arguing that it reflects a profound misunderstanding of how evolution works and, when applied to the evolution of our own species, supports mistaken ideas about our own place in the universe. Gee presents a robust and stark challenge to our tendency to see ourselves as the acme of creation. Far from being a quirk of religious fundamentalism, human exceptionalism, Gee argues, is an error that also infects scientific thought.
Touring the many features of human beings that have recurrently been used to distinguish us from the rest of the animal world, Gee shows that our evolutionary outcome is one possibility among many, one that owes more to chance than to an organized progression to supremacy. He starts with bipedality, which he shows could have arisen entirely by accident, as a by-product of sexual selection, moves on to technology, large brain size, intelligence, language, and, finally, sentience. He reveals each of these attributes to be alive and well throughout the animal world – they are not, indeed, unique to our species.
The Accidental Species combines Gee's firsthand experience on the editorial side of many incredible palaeontological findings with healthy scepticism and humour to create a book that aims to overturn popular thinking on human evolution – the key is not what's missing, but how we're linked.
Preface No More Missing Links
One An Unexpected Party
Two All about Evolution
Three Losing It
Four The Beowulf Effect
Five Shadows of the Past
Six The Human Error
Seven The Way We Walk
Eight The Dog and the Atlatl
Nine A Cleverness of Crows
Ten The Things We Say
Eleven The Way We Think
Afterword The Tangled Bank
Henry Gee is a senior editor at Nature and the author of such books as Jacob's Ladder, In Search of Deep Time, The Science of Middle-earth, and A Field Guide to Dinosaurs, the last with Luis V. Rey. He lives in Cromer, Norfolk, England, with his family and numerous pets.
"The Accidental Species is an excellent guide to our current knowledge of how we got where we are [...] Highly recommended."
– BBC Focus
"You may think there was nothing more to say about evolution, but The Accidental Species proves that there is – and wonderful stuff it is."
– Brian Clegg, Popular Science Book Review
"Gee is a paleontologist, an evolutionary biologist and a senior editor at the journal Nature. He is also a blues musician and a major Tolkien fan – a set of quirky characteristics that may help explain the combination of science and humor that pervades The Accidental Species. It is Gee's contention that scientists have been completely wrong in seeing humans as the apex of evolution. He denies that we developed big brains, the ability to use tools and all the rest through some kind of progression toward superiority. It was a lot more random, he says: We just kind of turned out this way. He illustrates his premise with detailed analysis and a mocking tone."
"Gee's big beef in The Accidental Species is with a common and popular narrative in which the evolution of man is a steadily unrolling tale of progress. Think of the classic image of a knuckle-dragging, ape-like creature giving way to a hunched, primitive man who in the following frames becomes taller and bolder until finally he looks like a Premier League football player minus the shorts. The truth, Gee argues [...] is much more complex and surprising."
"The Accidental Species should be a welcome addition to the bookshelf of any social scientist with an interest in evolution. Recent work in the area [...] highlights imaginations captured by prehistorical ancestral roots. Gee's writing provides background for the curious newcomer. Offering high readability and large dollops of humour, our 10-year-old read a chapter to me when I was driving. Recommended."
– LSE Review of Books
"[A] persuasive book [...] Gee is good at explaining how fossil evidence has been (mis)interpreted to fit that famous picture of man rising from the ape, growing taller and wiser with each step before culminating in us. The reality, he points out, is very different: until recently (no later than 50 000 years ago) there were many species of humans across the world. Some, such as the Neanderthals, had brains at least as big as ours; while others, such as the diminutive 'hobbit'found on the Indonesian island of Flores, were more closely akin to the apes."
– Financial Times
"If you want a primer on modern thinking about human evolution, you could do far worse than The Accidental Species. Gee writes well and has a taste for the absurd and the unintentionally amusing. You will learn much about the state of the fossil record and about how hard it is to make sense of the limited findings that we do have."
"An editor at Nature, Gee possesses a prose style that hews to that magazine's rigorous standards of scientific journalism while at the same time exhibiting a colloquial vivacity [...] It's with this kind of sparkling, clear-eyed, often droll prose that The Accidental Species conducts a Cook's tour of evolution, specifically human evolution."
– Barnes and Noble Review
"The Accidental Species is at once an eminently readable and important book. For almost three decades Henry Gee, senior editor of Nature Magazine, has helped bring some of the most important discoveries in paleontology to the scientific community and the public at large. Employing years of experience, sharp wit, and great erudition, Gee reveals how most of our popular conceptions of evolution are wrong. Gee delights in shedding us of our assumptions to reveal how science has the power to inform, enlighten, and ultimately surprise."
– Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish
"With a delightfully irascible sense of humor, Henry Gee reflects on our origin and all the misunderstanding that we impose on it. The Accidental Species is an excellent primer on how – and how not – to think about human evolution."
– Carl Zimmer, author of Evolution: Making Sense of Life and Parasite Rex
"Quite simply, the best book ever written about the fossil record and humankind's place in evolution."
– John Gribbin, author of Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique
"If you only read one book on human evolution, or indeed one book on evolution, make it this one."
– Ted Nield, author of Incoming and Supercontinent
"Henry Gee, paleontology editor at Nature, confronts two commonly held views of evolution and effectively demolishes both, persuasively arguing that evolution doesn't work the way most people believe it does and that the entire concept of 'human exceptionalism'(the idea that humans are fundamentally superior to other animals due to 'language, technology, or consciousness') is erroneous [...] He buttresses these points with an impressive and accessible overview of the pattern of human evolution, showing just how little we actually know and arguing that different evolutionary stories could likely fit the extant data."
– Publishers Weekly
"Gee sets out vehemently to dispute our common tendency to see ourselves as the pinnacle of creation, the bold, brilliant branch that is the final growth of the evolutionary tree of life [...] a thought-provoking and challenging book."
– Library Journal
"If you only read one book on evolution this year, make it this one. You will be dethroned. But you won't be disappointed."