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Book review Anthropology and the New Genetics.

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Book Reviews
René Bobé, Zeresenay Alemseged, and Anna K.
Behrensmeyer. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.
2007. 356 pp. ISBN 1-4020-3097-0. $129.00 (hardcover).
More than 25 years ago, C. K. Brain introduced the
idea that there might be causal links between Neogene
African climate change and major events in human evolution. Since that time, there have been 1) consistent
advances in the study of the deep-sea paleoclimate record; 2) a more sophisticated understanding of the
impact of tectonic and orbital forcing on African paleoenvironmental conditions; and 3) the expanded recovery of
an increasingly refined terrestrial vertebrate fossil record. Vrba’s turnover pulse hypothesis, which was based
on purported rapid changes in Plio-Pleistocene vertebrate community structure, was an important early step
in organizing some of these data sets into a coherent scenario of the mechanisms that drove human evolution.
However, improved faunal samples from East Africa do
not document the abrupt bursts of evolution predicted by
the turnover pulse hypothesis (e.g., Behrensmeyer et al.,
Science 1997;278:1589). Undaunted, researchers forge
ahead, workshops and symposia convene, and scholarly
tomes are published. In the process, the hypothesis that
environmental (including climatic) change is linked to
speciation has become as mundane as it is profound.
Two currently prominent and competing variants of this
theme are Potts’s variability selection hypothesis and
the environmental forcing hypothesis of Bobé and colleagues.
These issues were the subject of a recent special journal issue (‘‘African Paleoclimate and Human Evolution,’’
Journal of Human Evolution 2007;53:443). Considering
the storied context of the topic (much condensed here),
the introductory remarks of editors Maslin and Christensen, ‘‘Results presented in this volume may represent the
basis of a new theory of early human evolution in Africa,’’
are laid bare as hyperbole. The primary importance of the
results presented in the Maslin and Christensen issue is
not theoretical. Its value is instead as a collective, datarich summation that parses the relative contributions of
tectonics, orbital forcing, and global climate in creating
local African environmental conditions under which hominids evolved throughout the Plio-Pleistocene.
In that perspective, Hominin Environments in the
East African Pliocene, edited by Bobé et al., can be
and Mauricio Antón. New York: Columbia University
Press. 2007. 269 pp. ISBN 0-231-11945-3. $24.95
With the steady stream of books recounting the evolution of ‘‘Adam’’ and ‘‘Eve,’’ people have got to be wondering what the other animals in Eden were like. Perhaps,
it is this much needed perspective that motivated Turner
C 2008
viewed as an important companion piece. Whereas the
Maslin and Christensen issue follows in a line of succession from essential volumes like Paleoclimate and Evolution, with Emphasis on Human Origins (edited by Vrba
et al., 1995) that compile contributions from disparate
but complementary disciplines, the new book by Bobé
et al. is much more circumscribed in its aspirations and
coverage. The majority of contributors to the book’s 12
chapters are paleontologists working with primary fossil
data from some of the most important Pliocene sites in
East Africa. Refreshingly, the stated overarching goals
are not restrictive, and the final product demonstrates
that authors were given the latitude to contribute chapters that do hang together but in a very broad way. The
collective exercise demonstrates that in East Africa—
where tight constraint of temporal context is possible
because of radioisotopic dating—there are a variety of
creative ways in which faunal data can be used to situate the events of hominid evolution fairly specifically
within a long period of great geological, climatological,
and ecological dynamism. In addition, most authors are
to be congratulated for appropriate taphonomic sensitivity in their approaches to the fossil record. Many of the
data have been presented elsewhere (sometimes in different forms or with other emphases), but having them
collected into a single volume is useful to the interested
nonspecialist, and they benefit from the uniformly clear
style of presentation throughout.
Just as with the Maslin and Christensen issue, there
is no theoretical revolution in the pages of Hominin
Environments in the East African Pliocene. Wisely, Bobé
et al. never claimed their book contained one. What it
does contain is more valuable: the further product of the
long-running, widespread, and dogged effort to refine the
relationship between environment and evolution. More
theory will never narrow this gap. More dates and more
fossils will.
Department of Anthropology
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison, Wisconsin
Institute for Human Evolution
University of the Witwatersrand
Johannesburg, South Africa
DOI 10.1002/ajpa.20906
Published online 18 August 2008 in Wiley InterScience
and Antón to contribute Evolving Eden. In this volume,
the notion of Eden dominates as the authors focus
mainly on the large mammals that were contemporaneous with Plio-Pleistocene hominins.
After a foreword by Elisabeth Vrba, the first chapter,
‘‘Dating, continental drift, climate change, and the motor
of evolution,’’ lays the foundation for the rest of the book.
Anyone wishing to brush up on the first three topics should
consult this useful chapter. Closing with barely three
pages on evolutionary theory and processes, the authors
assume the readers are familiar with these concepts and
skip their discussion in favor of getting to the animals.
The second chapter, ‘‘The background to mammalian
evolution in Africa,’’ outlines the processes of looking at
the present geography, climates, and biomes of Africa to
understand the past. Here the authors distinguish the
hunting tactics of various big cats and how they may
compete for a carcass. The readers learn of the ‘‘grazing
succession’’: zebras first nip off the tip of the blades of
grass, then they are followed by wildebeests, then
smaller ungulates, like gazelles, obtain the most attractive parts near the ground. They also discuss the water
requirements of different taxa, wetland opportunities,
adaptations for desert survival, and rain forest productivity, all from the large mammal’s perspective.
Over half of the book is contained in the third chapter,
‘‘African mammals, past and present.’’ As it was unnecessary to make Evolving Eden into a proper field guide, it is
not quite organized like one, but nearly every page of this
chapter contains an illustration. Before the taxa are discussed in detail, general methods of anatomical reconstruction are explained, then there is a brief discussion of
zoological nomenclature, terminology, and systematics.
The guide begins with the Order Primates and it follows
with Creodonta, Carnivora, Embrithopoda (Arsinoitheres),
Proboscidea, Perissodactyla, Artiodactyla, Insectivora,
Macroscelidea, Chiroptera, Pholidota, Lagomorpha,
Rodentia, Tubulidentata, and Hyracoidea. The authors
mention that small mammals were included only for completeness. As expected, many more pages are dedicated to
primates, carnivores, and artiodactyls than to any of the
other orders. This chapter is infused with interesting bits
of information, for instance, bears of an extinct tribe (Ursavini) lived in Africa more than 4 million years ago; sexual
selection may explain the length of the giraffe neck
(p 144); the hipparionine that left a tridactyl footprint at
Laetoli did so because of slippery conditions, not because it
normally walked on its lateral digits (Figure 3.66).
Readers may be disoriented while gazing at the reconstruction of the ‘‘Turkana boy’’ (Figure 3.17). Antón
expertly drew a boyish face, but he extended the boy’s
hips to obliterate the waist. This interpretation of Homo
erectus pelvic proportions, based on those of the Atapuerca Neanderthal specimen, is not a mainstream one,
and it is surprising to see this depiction of Homo erectus
without human-like proportions. When the authors question whether the Orrorin hominin remains comprise a
single individual (p 76), they indirectly address a
broader area of contention. Their critique of paleontological techniques echoes accusations made against artists
for fashioning fossil Frankensteins to flesh out complete
animals. As long as we are fully and expertly aware of
the limitations of the fossil record and paleontology—
from death and recovery to artistic life-like reconstruction—then science and art can continue hand in hand as
is showcased in the pages of Evolving Eden.
Simon Mays. New York: Wiley. 2008. 389 pp. ISBN 0470-03602-8. $150.00 (hardcover).
It may be asked if we really need yet another book on
paleopathology, especially because there are many
American Journal of Physical Anthropology
In the fourth chapter, the authors discuss the environmental and faunal-community reconstructions of most
well-known fossil sites located in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia,
Libya, Egypt, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania,
Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, and South Africa. Each entry is
limited to a single paragraph or to a few short ones. The
final chapter, ‘‘Evolving African mammalian faunas,’’ is the
prize for reading the previous four. Illustrating mostly
with words, Turner and Antón beautifully draw together
and reconcile all the data they discuss in the earlier pages
and paint a lovely picture of Africa and its mammalian diversity in successive evolutionary periods. The result is a
glimpse of the paleolandscapes and the large mammals
that lived there through a time traveler’s binoculars.
If there is one gripe that many readers will have
regarding Evolving Eden, it will be about the disappointing presentation of Antón’s exquisite drawings.
There are only 16 color glossy plates, eight of which
are reconstructions, but the other eight are photographs of landscapes and animal communities. The
publisher should have replaced the latter with more of
Antón’s unique depictions of extinct mammals. The
rest of the figures, although plentiful, are restricted to
black ink. Many of them portray sweeping landscapes,
but they have been shrunk to a maximum of about 5 3
7 inches. It is difficult to appreciate much detail in
these small renderings.
The disservice the publishers did to the artwork does
not detract from the importance of this book. It is a succinct introduction to African mammalian evolution and
it will easily introduce newcomers to the field. Likewise,
Evolving Eden provides new, stimulating perspectives to
experienced workers. From the tone of the preface and
the epilogue, this book is also aimed at ecotourists. Most
notably, Evolving Eden is recommended reading for anyone who teaches human evolution, especially those who
have not been to Africa to witness its biotas.
Turner and Antón bring to life the cardboard dioramas
in which we so frequently place ancient hominins. They
show that there is more to a savanna than grass and
that animals do not evolve in a vacuum. Evolving Eden
is a step toward putting ancient mammals, including
‘‘Adams’’ and ‘‘Eves,’’ not just in a sedimentary context,
climate, or habitat, but into a living, breathing, evolving
ecosystem of the past.
Department of Anthropology
Northeastern Illinois University
Chicago, Illinois
DOI 10.1002/ajpa.20913
Published online 18 August 2008 in Wiley InterScience
acclaimed sources available. In this case, the answer
must be a resounding ‘‘Yes!’’ The field of paleopathology
has undergone marked advances over the past 10–
15 years. The intention of the editors of this book is to
call attention to this development within paleopathological research; the shift away from individual case studies
of specific conditions toward the use of population studies to answer archaeological questions. Each chapter
addresses the biases and limitations, history and future
progress of paleoepidemiology, and diachronic approaches to paleopathology. Thus, there are important
and fundamental differences in the approach of this
book when compared with previous publications.
The book is divided into two sections: The first comprises
nine chapters, which provide an overview of analytical
approaches in paleopathology, whereas the second comprises seven chapters, which focus on diagnosis and interpretation of disease in human remains. The 14 contributors
are experts with many years of experience in their respective research fields. Each brings his or her own approaches
to the study of paleopathology and presents case studies
that add an extra interest for the reader. In addition, the
contributors provide information about sites and materials
yet to be published and information from articles in journals inaccessible to many applied paleopathologists, biological anthropologists, and osteoarchaeologists.
The first section gives an overview of various analytical approaches used in studying paleopathology. The initial chapter provides the reader with an understanding
of the form and function of bone and the processes of
chemical and microbial degradation. The next two chapters address the problems encountered when basing population analyses on burial populations and the use of epidemiological approaches in paleopathology. The following five chapters discuss advances in methodological
approaches to paleopathology. These chapters describe
the utility of macroscopic and microscopic examination of
bone, as well as how radiography and CT scanning can
add information about diseased bones that is not available through more conventional methods. The last chapter in this section is a review of the databases now available and their importance to the research community.
For ease of reading, each chapter follows a preset structure. There is a good historical review of research pertaining to each specific topic. Detailed descriptions of when
and how to use different methods are followed by discussions of their applicability to human remains. Each chapter has its own extensive list of references. This works well
in this case because each chapter covers a unique topic,
and thus there is little to no overlap in the sources listed.
The second section addresses diagnosis and interpretation of disease in human remains. The conditions
described are those associated with trauma, infectious
and metabolic diseases, tumors and tumor-like processes,
diseases of the teeth and jaws, and congenital anomalies.
Each chapter is brimming with in-depth information on
how to recognize various diseases based on skeletal evidence. An important aspect here is that the focus is not
necessarily on extreme or advanced cases; rather, less
Pálsson. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2007.
268 pp. ISBN 978-0-521-67174-3. $29.99 (paper).
This volume in Cambridge University Press’s New
Departures in Anthropology series uses the Icelandic biopharmaceutical company deCODE Genetics as a case
study to examine the contributions of anthropology to
the understanding of contemporary biomedical debates
advanced cases are considered and information on how a
disease progresses over time is presented. In addition,
the chapters highlight what other infectious organisms
may cause the same or similar skeletal lesions and,
whenever possible, provide information to differentiate
one cause from another. The chapter on congenital skeletal anomalies has a welcome inclusion of in-depth information on human development and embryology, topics
that are often left out or only briefly touched upon in
standard paleopathology discussions. The concluding
chapter discusses temporal changes in stature in
archaeological populations and the predictive power of
various skeletal elements to model growth curves.
This book is essentially an introduction to advances in
paleopathology. It offers a realistic approach to information that can be acquired from archaeological populations and encourages researchers to think about the factors that may influence the results of their analyses. It
highlights the problems and limitations of archaeological
material and emphasizes the importance of detailed
description and differential diagnosis in analysis. The
authors acknowledge the potential for bias in the data
and present thoughtful discussions of how to counteract
such biases. The authors accept that there is much that
cannot be discussed in this volume, and each author has
provided exceptional references to enable readers to
research topics on their own.
As an advanced how-to guide, where methodology is
described in such detail that even a novice may be able to
perform the research, this book is an invaluable resource
for those embarking on careers in either academic or
applied paleopathology. The volume is a good teaching tool
for graduate students and professionals, as it addresses
how to recognize and record changes to skeletal remains
and how to recognize what potential disease process are
responsible. The many illustrations included, all in black
and white, are of excellent quality and are useful representations of specific lesions and diseases, especially as
they depict the progression of pathological lesions. Visually and textually, this volume is of exceptional value for
guiding future generations of paleopathologists.
Department of Archaeology
University of Sheffield, Sheffield
United Kingdom
DOI 10.1002/ajpa.20914
Published online 18 August 2008 in Wiley InterScience
and issues. The focus on deCODE Genetics is a strength
of the volume and derives from the author’s ethnographic study of deCODE from its earliest days. One of
the weaknesses of the volume, however, is that the
‘‘thick description’’ of deCODE is rather thinner than
one might hope. I learned much about the history of
deCODE, as well as about other similar ventures in
other countries, but the wide-ranging digressions that
the discussion spawns give short shrift to many topics.
American Journal of Physical Anthropology
This may be the result of the series’ self-stated goal of
providing concise syntheses of emerging themes in social
and cultural anthropology that ‘‘stimulate, provoke, and
inform anthropologists at all stages of their careers’’
(p. iii). At times I found the descriptions too concise and
more provocative than informative.
The book itself comprises eight chapters. The introductory chapter provides background information on deCODE
Genetics along with some basics of Mendelian and molecular genetics. The concluding chapter attempts to place
debates and controversies in some historical context and to
frame questions for continued discussion and debate within
the discipline. The real substance of the volume, however,
is in the intervening six chapters. The first of these introduces the first of three persistent metaphorical themes in
the book: birthmarks are body landmarks, just as genes are
genomic landmarks and health statistics are the ‘‘birthmarks of the national body’’ (p. 114), and all may be imbued
with significance beyond their physical locations and
descriptions. In the subsequent chapter on genealogies,
trees are used as metaphorical descriptors of various levels
of human variation, from population genetics to genealogical linkages. The inadequacy of the ‘‘Tree of Life’’ metaphor
is explored in various ways throughout the volume. The
third metaphorical theme is that of machines. The machinery of molecular biology, the gene-hunting machine that is
deCODE, and the machine that maps gene to phenotype
are but a few of the machines in the book. The metaphor is
a tired one, but it facilitates the characterization of genetics
and biology as undergirding the ‘‘hegemony of genetic
determinism in contemporary discourse’’ (p. 13). This continuing theme of the volume is but one with which many
physical anthropologists and geneticists will take issue.
The three chapters on biobanking, bioethics, and biovalue raise interesting questions and provide considerable insight into the international discussion of these
issues from the perspective of deCODE Genetics. The
biobanking chapter offers a useful summary of and comparison among deCODE and six other national efforts to
integrate medical records, genealogical information, and
genetic data. The bioethics chapter is perhaps the most
interesting, informative, and thought provoking of the
volume. It fairly portrays the early controversy over
the opt-out model of the Icelandic database, the role of
the international bioethics research community in this
controversy, and how Icelandic citizens’ perceptions have
changed over time. Support for the effort initially was
very high, but the opt-out rate has grown significantly in
recent years. This chapter also explores other issues
associated with informed consent (e.g., individual vs.
group), patient rights, and privacy protections.
Curiously, the chapter on human variation is the weakest and least satisfying of the volume. The chapter covers
much ground, but little of it is new or stimulating for
geneticists or biological anthropologists. It rehashes old
(and not so old) controversies and arguments, but little
advance is made. Yes, trees are not particularly useful at
representing some levels of human variation. Perhaps a
rhizome model is better, but no comparable attempt to
evaluate its shortcomings is made. And yes, populations
are difficult to define and are frequently defined fairly
arbitrarily. These issues aren’t new and neither are the
analytical difficulties they pose. Some may be surprised to
read that there is a general tendency (among geneticists,
presumably) to assume that human population genetic
data fit an island model and that the history of population
American Journal of Physical Anthropology
definitions and sampling emanates from this assumption.
In contrast, I take this to be an active area of research and
debate rather than a uniform disciplinary assumption.
The discussion of populations, races, and patterned
human variation is neither new nor illuminating. There is
occasionally some confusion concerning levels of variation:
within and between populations, individual familial
ancestry, among individual genetic markers, linkage
groups, etc. This chapter does not fit seamlessly with the
others; perhaps because it is also the only one that does
not even mention deCODE Genetics.
The concluding chapter is not just a rehashing of the
previous discussions. It is generally well written and perhaps deliberately provocative. Many will find it frustrating, with its restatement of the presumption of biological
determinism but inadequate attention to modern analytical models of variation, e.g., gene-environment interactions or other translational and developmental complexities. But the distinction between ‘‘gene-centrism’’ and
genetic determinism is worthy of discussion, as is the propensity for degrees of relatedness among individuals and
personal identity to be reduced to ‘‘genetic connections
and genome properties’’ (p. 213). On the other hand, there
are literary excesses here. I don’t know, for example, what
it means to be posthuman in the modern age, or why we
should prefer the ‘‘holistic’’ term genomic anthropology to
the ‘‘reductionistic’’ biological or genetic anthropology (p.
208). Similarly, the claim for radical change in ‘‘conceptions of personhood, individuality, kinship, and society’’
(p. 212) as a result of biological/genetic research and medical procedures is not well supported. Like many similar
bold claims in the volume, this one, too, is unencumbered
by documentation or citation of the primary literature.
Despite what I view as some basic weaknesses in presentation and documentation, this volume is worth perusing, if
only because it is often useful. The book was written for
social and cultural anthropologists, and as such is a useful
barometer of how effectively, or ineffectively, we communicate the complexities of phenotypic development and human
variation. Beyond that, the treatment of the history of
national biobanks, especially deCODE Genetics and the demise of the Icelandic Health Sector Database, is useful and
informative. The related discussion of the history of bioethical issues is similarly instructive and important. The
intended audience of this volume seems to be advanced
graduate students and professional anthropologists (or other
social scientists). Given its wide range and limited (sometimes superficial) treatment of some subjects, it would be
useful as a text only in the context of a fairly focused graduate seminar. Some of the individual chapters, on the other
hand, could be productively used in a variety of courses in
both social and biological anthropology. They would certainly stimulate discussion and debate. If many of the positions taken here are contentious, the conclusion of the book
that ‘‘biological anthropology has thrown a new light on
human evolution, history and migration’’ (p. 229) is one that
should be received warmly by readers of this journal.
Department of Anthropology
University of Utah
Salt Lake City, Utah
DOI 10.1002/ajpa.20936
Published online 15 October 2008 in Wiley InterScience
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