Top banner


Elegant Weave

Joanna Lambert

Lucy's Legacy: Sex and Intelligence in Human Evolution. Alison Jolly. 518 pp. Harvard University Press. $29.95.

This is an engaging romp through the human story and a thoughtful exploration of who we are as both a biological and a cultural species. Although Jolly covers a considerable diversity of topics in four major sections, each chapter of the story is woven together with a unifying theme of cooperation.

Jolly begins with the section "Evolution," describing the primordial soup whence all species derive and a discussion of perhaps the ultimate question: Why should organisms have sex? Why? Because cells divide up roles and duties and hence have a cooperative relationship. Jolly then turns to the evolution of intelligence. Employing Richard Dawkins's notion of the "meme," she suggests that new ideas are beneficial in the same way that biological ("genes") diversity is: It facilitates adaptation to diverse and changing habitats. Jolly argues that sexual roles in idea acquisition are analogous to the cooperation we observe between differentiated sex cells. Cooperation, she suggests, can be found in human sexual competition as well. To wit, Jolly traces the evolution of mate-guarding in males to human monogamy; monogamy, she argues, requires male collusion: "She is yours, but this female is mine."

First midwife?Click to Enlarge Image

In "Wild Societies," Jolly draws on her background as a primatologist and evaluates the position the human species assumes in the primate order. She argues that our uniqueness among primates can be attributed to the facts that we are the only species in the order that maintains contact with both sides of the family, that has concealed ovulation and that seeks privacy when mating. Jolly shows that even at the order level, cooperation becomes apparent. Jolly suggests that the remarkable encephalization that we see in primates in general (in our own species most dramatically) results from the pressure to keep up with the social ingenuity of other group and nongroup members. In her view, all organisms live in complex habitats, but not all organisms have social networks as complex as those we find among the primates.

"Developing a Mind" examines the development of individuals, human and nonhuman primate intelligence, culture and theory of mind. Here, Jolly argues convincingly that to say that behavioral attributes (such as intelligence) have a genetic underpinning is not tantamount to suggesting that genetics are fate. Jolly goes on to evaluate consciousness and emotion in other animals. She argues that humans have been resistant to attributing consciousness to other animals in part because of modern interpretations of Descartes's mind-body dichotomy. But, she argues, it is more parsimonious to assume that other animals do have emotion and intelligence. Along these lines, she turns to an evaluation of learning, teaching and "protoculture" in nonhuman primates. Here she also describes human ontogeny and discusses language, including child language acquisition, the heritable and cultural components of human language and the great ape language experiments.

In the concluding section, "The Age of Humanity," Jolly discusses the hominid fossil record and the human cultural expansion associated with the Upper Paleolithic "Great Leap." She ultimately offers her vision of the future. She suggests that the features that we can identify in organisms can be recognized in the emerging "globalized" culture. She eventually rejects the notion that natural selection could operate on such an "organism"—but argues that in this uncertain time, memes are the mechanism for stability and change. This is perhaps the least satisfying discussion of the book and is essentially, as Jolly admits, science fiction.

A clearer indication of the themes and goals at the outset of the book would have greatly helped to orient this reader. In addition, there were times when I thought the term "cooperation" was misleading. In some contexts, substituting more appropriate, incisive words such as "facilitation," "mutualism" or "parasitism" would have added clarity. Overall, Jolly does a nice job evaluating the "adaptationist" approach and proposes an even-handed approach to understanding evolution and species' adaptations. Nonetheless, at times it is difficult to distinguish between well-established fact, opinion and just-so stories. Although Jolly does not clearly indicate who her target audience is, I would feel most comfortable recommending this book to a friend who has a keen—but nonprofessional—interest in biology and human evolution. This book is best categorized as popular science writing and does not include enough referencing or substantiation of fact to be appropriate for a class assignment or for research.

These criticisms aside, Jolly does an elegant job weaving biology, history, art, poetry, anecdotes and facts alike to unfold the tapestry of who we are as a species. This book provides a thoughtful review of many decades of research by biologists, primatologists, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, although Jolly's original ideas pepper the discussion. It is an erudite and witty think piece, liberally seasoned with insights and illustrations gleaned from throughout the humanities and sciences—an appropriate blend from the author who bemoans the arbitrary dichotomization of human biology and human culture. Indeed, for those of us who believe that both biology and culture can contribute to our understanding of who we are as a species, this book is an amusing read and a refreshing antidote to the estrangement of the natural and social sciences.—Joanna E. Lambert, Anthropology, University of Oregon

comments powered by Disqus


Bottom Banner