Book Review: Origins Reconsidered — In Search of What Makes Us Human


Georges Lteif

Georges Lteif

Software Engineer

Last Updated on October 31, 2022.
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5 min read


Who Should Read This Book

Origins Reconsidered recounts the story of human evolution from multiple angles: locomotion, cognitive abilities, speech, art, consciousness, and language. It is a thrilling read aiming to identify the unique elements of human nature by examining how these elements emerged over time and under what ecological conditions. It’s the layman’s classic book on paleoanthropology.


Synopsis

Richard Leakey is a Kenyan paleoanthropologist whose team discovered the Turkana Boy in 1984, an almost complete skeleton of a Homo erectus, which, for fossil hunters, is a remarkably rare find.

In 1977, Leakey published a book co-authored by Roger Lewin and titled Origins. In light of recent scientific findings fifteen years later, he decided to re-examine the ideas presented in Origins; the result was a new bookOrigins Reconsidered — In Search of What Makes Us Human.

The book is divided into six parts as follows:

  • Part 1: In Search of the Turkana Boy — In the three chapters constituting this section of the book, Leakey recounts the story of the discovery of the Turkana Boy and the scientific knowledge that could be gleaned from it. The narrative he presented of the boy’s final days and subsequent death on the shores of lake Turkana is captivating, a testament to the author’s remarkable story-telling skills.
  • Part 2: In Search of Beginnings — The central themes of this part are A) bipedalism, its origins and implications, B) the diversity of the humanoid family and the emergence of a single winner with every other branch going extinct, and C) molecular biology and how can it supplements scientific knowledge from fossils.
  • Part 3: In Search of Humanity — In the four chapters that make up this section, Leakey elaborates on the social life of early humans, the emergence of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and how dietary changes, smaller teeth, larger brain sizes, tool-making, and lean facial architectures were produced as hominids became less ape-like and more human-like. He recounts how anthropologists tried to piece together the structure of a hominid band, its daily routines, and complex social life from artifacts found in an ancient archeological site.
  • Part 4: In Search of Modern Humans — Neanderthals and other branches of the human family occupy centre stage in part 4 of Origins Reconsidered. More specifically, the author analyses various theories explaining the ascent of Man (Homo Sapiens), the species’ mystical dominance over its cousins, like the Neanderthals, and its spread on all continents. A chapter is dedicated to analysing DNA in mitochondria and the evidence it provides towards a common ancestor for all humankind.
  • Part 5: In Search of the Modern Human Mind — Five chapters are dedicated to aspects of the human mind (advanced cognition, abstraction, consciousness, language, mythology, art) that we recognise today as intimately human. Richard Leakey dissects each of these attributes in great detail, endeavouring to reach as far past as scientific evidence allows (bordering on speculation when not) to pinpoint the origins and areas of the brain or body in which these attributes first took form.
  • Part 6: In Search of the Future — In this small and final chapter, Leakey approaches the Anthropological Principle and the inevitability (or not) of our appearance as a species.

Origins Reconsidered presents the reader with a view of the current state of scientific research (tools, methods, and theories) in paleoanthropology. It is a well-researched, thorough, and captivating story of our origins as a species.


Key Metrics

Original Content
80%
Practical Usage
15%
Depth
80%
Authority
95%
Writing Style
100%
Accessibility
90%

Quick Review

Highly Recommended

Format

Although the book is nicely divided into six parts, they are almost always intertwined, and the same story appears to be recounted from several angles.

Style

Professor Leakey is a talented storyteller; his smooth-flowing style is a testament to his deep understanding and familiarity with the subject. With hardly any technical jargon, the author can convey ideas of great complexity without losing the author’s attention.

Content

Despite the book’s age (1992), its fundamental ideas continue to resonate with the current state of knowledge in paleoanthropology. Its thorough analysis does not leave the reader thirsty for more learning. The author has referenced the literature where required, and its easy to follow the sources and research under discussion.


Format

Edition Details

PAPERBACK

ISBN-13: 9 780316 902984
23.5 x 15 x 3.7 cm
375 pages


Themes


Content

Structure

The book is divided into six parts with a progressive chronological order of the events and ideas it describes. The book’s central theme, however, can be read in the first chapters; what makes us human, and how far back does it go?

Original Content

While this edition of Origins Reconsidered was published a while back (1992), its content is original enough to the layman, which seems to be the target audience of this work.
The author supplemented his field knowledge with a vast amount of research from many subdomains of paleoanthropology, citing the resources and the researchers involved.

General Tone

Origins Reconsidered reads like a novel with barely any technical jargon. The author’s writing genius is demonstrated by presenting complicated concepts in accessible forms without compromising depth and rigour.

Practical Usage

As this website is majorly concerned with software development and project delivery topics, the book’s practical aim examined under that lens is found to be tiny or nonexistent. However, we highly recommend it for people interested in deep philosophical and scientific questions about humankind and humanity.

Books of such nature broaden our minds and place our uniqueness as a species or individuals into perspective. It also helps create a more open organisational culture and gives team members exciting topics to discuss in their lunch breaks.

Depth

Origins Reconsidered is a reasonably thorough book in its treatment of the primary themes. The author relies heavily on his field knowledge and supplements it with immense literature research. The sources are cited indirectly through the authors (alas, there is no bibliography), which provides the reader with new lines of search should they wish to know more.


The book addresses multiple facets of paleoanthropological studies, including fossil analysis, primate anatomy, molecular biology, cultural anthropology, archeology, and primate behaviour.


The book is medium-sized (375 pages printed in large format) but covers the topic nicely. The reader is seldom left with a lingering feeling that an idea needs more discussion or articulation.

Authority

Professor Leakey dedicated his career to fossil-finding expeditions, and his teams made many discoveries, the most prominent of which is undoubtedly the Turkana Boy, an almost complete skeleton of a Homo erectus (other authorities believe it’s a Homo ergaster). His writings show an unquenchable curiosity for knowledge and a philosophical bend to his thoughts. His writing and story-telling skills are unmatched.


Style

Genre

The book can be classified under popular science.

Writing Style

Origins Reconsidered presents a unique style of popular science writing, and it mostly reads as a biography or novel tightly woven with technical concepts on the scientific topic it treats. It is as though the author is taking us on his journey of discovery of human origins and humanity. He recounts how human evolution theories have evolved with new archeological findings and novel ideas.

Accessibility

Having (unsuccessfully) attempted to read John Napier’s book The Roots of Mankind, a feeling of awe for the more technically bent books on anthropology has developed within me. I expected Origins Reconsidered to show the same daunting difficulties, but, on the contrary, it presented exceptionally accessible material. As someone with minimal knowledge of natural sciences (as is commonly the case for professionals with training in engineering), I found the contents of the book sinking in relatively quickly.


Author

Bio

From Wikipedia:

Richard Erskine Frere Leakey (19 December 1944 – 2 January 2022) was a Kenyan paleoanthropologistconservationist and politician. Leakey held several official positions in Kenya, mostly in archaeology and wildlife conservation institutions. He was the Director of the National Museum of Kenya, founded the NGO WildlifeDirect and was the chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

Leakey co-founded the Turkana Basin Institute in an academic partnership with Stony Brook University, where he was an anthropology professor. He served as the chair of the Turkana Basin Institute until his death.

Publications

  • Origins (with Roger Lewin, 1977)
  • People of the Lake: Mankind and its Beginnings (with Roger Lewin, 1978)
  • Making of Mankind (1981)
  • One Life: An Autobiography (1983)
  • Origins Reconsidered (with Roger Lewin, 1992)
  • The Origin of Humankind (1994)
  • The Sixth Extinction (with Roger Lewin, 1995)
  • Wildlife Wars: My Fight to Save Africa’s Natural Treasures (with Virginia Morell, 2001)