November 1, 2010 · 6:07 pm
Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press, $28.00, 295 pages)
In the promotional materials, this promised to be a unique look at the first human beings, Cro-Magnons. It also was said to contain a look at the interactions between Cro-Magnons and their less evolved contemporaries and rivals, the Neanderthals. Sadly, this survey book fails to deliver on these promises.
The author, Brian Fagan, examines various views of early and pre-human history and then asks, “But what do we know?” The answer is – not much. He goes on to apply this answer to the question of when Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals first discovered fire. And as to how and when Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals interacted, Fagan offers only weak (quite weak) guesses.
On one key point the author has now been shown to be completely wrong. On the issue of whether Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals interbred he states, “Most experts think they did not.” But the latest research (“Evidence Suggests Early Humans Mated with Neanderthals”) indicates that they did in fact breed with each other, and a small but not insignificant percentage of human beings today – most of whom live in Europe/Eastern Europe – are their direct descendants.
A bigger flaw with this work is that Fagan never humanizes, in a very literal sense, these ancestral creatures. It is left to Donald Johanson and his exemplary “Lucy” series to make us feel the sense of connectedness lacking in Cro-Magnon. A major opportunity missed.
Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.
Take Away: If you’re interested in the beginnings of humankind, two essential books are Lucy: How Our Oldest Human Ancestor Was Discovered – And Who She Was by Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey (Touchstone Books/Simon and Schuster), and Lucy’s Child: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor by Donald Johanson and James Shreeve (Avon Books). Dr. Johanson more recently joined with Kate Wong to write Lucy’s Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins, which was released in June of this year by Three Rivers Press.
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September 18, 2010 · 1:57 pm
A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler (Bloomsbury; $25.00; 320 pages)
Animal lovers of each and every type will love A Small Furry Prayer. I’m a cat person and yet this story got me to thinking about the joys of living with a dog. Note that I deliberately did not use the phrase “owning a dog,” as Kotler makes clear that every canine retains a measure of independence.
“My home was now an environment where some level of danger and unpredictability – two of the defining characteristics of wildness – were part of the basic package.”
This tale of a dog rescuing fortyish couple starts in Los Angeles before moving to the comparative wilds of New Mexico. They begin by serving as emergency foster parents to one dog, then two before winding up living in a dilapidated farm-house in Chimayo, New Mexico – with 20 dogs! (They later lose count of the total when it exceeds 20.)
Steven Kotler and his wife Joy (known to the locals as el angel de los perros) wind up being less foster parents than the providers of a wooly home for abandoned dogs. Because six or so of the dogs are Chihuahuas their abode comes to be known as Rancho de Chihuahua.
The Kotlers don’t have a lot of money in 2008 but nevertheless they must purchase $500 worth of good quality dog food each week (sickly dogs require good nutrition) and spend their savings on expensive life-saving operations for their wards. Kotler is sceptical that he’s going to get much payback from this situation other than having kept his commitment to following Joy’s number one rule in life: “Love me, love my dogs.”
Eventually, of course, Kotler gets his reciprocation in the form of love and acceptance from the rescued dogs, some of whom had been feral and mistrusting of humans. And there’s the instance in which one of the dogs saves the author’s life when a mountain climbing expedition goes bad. The dogs, in a sense, demonstrate that love and affection is always paid back in full.
As a former newspaper and magazine writer, Kotler is used to doing extensive research and in this book he includes many fascinating summaries of research performed with animals. Much of the research verifies the benefits – mental and physical – that dogs and other animals bring to our existence. Kotler also makes a convincing case for the notion that the modern dog is just as smart as (but perhaps shrewder than) his wolf ancestors.
At the end of Prayer, the reader will likely come to accept the positive message that our lives on this planet are meant to be shared with furry creatures; creatures that are never owned but which reward us with their unique and special presence. Part of the truth about what it really means to be human can be expressed in the phrase, “Love me, love my animals.”
This review was written by Joseph Arellano. A review copy was received from the publisher. A Small Furry Prayer will be released by Bloomsbury USA on Tuesday, September 28, 2010.
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