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Book review Why Size Matters From Bacteria to Blue Whales.

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Book Reviews
BEFORE THE DAWN. By Nicholas Wade. New York: Penguin
Press. 2006. 312 pp. ISBN 1-504-29079-3. $24.95 (cloth).
THE SINGING NEANDERTHALS. By Stephen Mithen. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press. 2006. ISBN 0-674-02192-4.
$25.95 (cloth).
False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone
takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness: and
when this is done, one path towards error is closed and
the road to truth is often at the same time opened.
—Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
Regrettably, this bit of wisdom has been lost on the
popular science press, which, although seemingly enamored with Darwin’s persona, has little use for his advice,
and mercilessly bombards the public with whatever false
facts and dogma are deemed necessary to sell print. Like
the cloistered monks who centuries ago wrote graphically about heaven and hell without ever having been
there, popular science venerates or vilifies without firsthand knowledge or even a simple checking of facts. True
to their genre, these two trade books are bastions of false
facts and dogma of a magnitude that cannot be done justice in the limited space of this review.
Before the Dawn is best described as an infomercial
for the contributions DNA sequencing has made to the
study of human prehistory and history rather than a
chronicle of the last 50,000 years of human evolution as
its book jacket claims. The book is divided into 12 chapters, some with Bible-inspired headings (e.g., ‘‘Genesis,’’
‘‘Eden,’’ and ‘‘Exodus’’) and all beginning with quotes
from Charles Darwin. Other than to bolster the narrative’s authority through association, the relevance of
these headings and quotes is seldom apparent. Chapter
1 emphasizes the utility of DNA for understanding prehistory and history. The remaining chapters report
DNA’s role in illuminating the author’s own misinformed
accounts of: 2) human divergence from a ‘‘chimpanzeelike ancestor;’’ 3) language evolution and ‘‘language
genes;’’ 4) mitochondrial and Y-chromosome genealogy;
5) modern human migration and ‘‘brain genes;’’ 6) Upper
Paleolithic populations, dogs, and the peopling of the
New World; 7) settlements and agriculture, domestication, and lactose tolerance; 8) warfare, cannibalism, religion, and sexual mores; 9) race; 10) language; 11) history; and 12) human evolution’s future. The book lacks a
unifying thesis, is poorly organized, and thus, reads like
a compilation of DNA news stories lifted from the pages
of Nature, Science, and the New York Times. Its 17 figures are mostly line-drawn maps of human species distributions and migration routes. Nearly all are mislabeled, and like the text, are chock-full of false facts. Map
2.3 (p. 18) places Neanderthals in southern England,
overlapping a Homo erectus distribution in Spain and
Italy. Fortunately, the figures are so markedly reduced
most mistakes will go unnoticed.
Poor organization and figures are the least of the
book’s ills. Principally, the author has trouble sticking to
facts when tying different DNA news stories into a single narrative. Some false facts are common popular sciC 2007
ence staples and easy to recognize, e.g., Neanderthals
had ‘‘muscles like weightlifters’’ (p. 91) and their ‘‘behavioral inferiority’’ was reflected in ‘‘a crude syntax-free
proto-language, or perhaps no language at all’’ (p. 92).
Most, however, will probably only be recognized as false
by ‘‘true experts,’’ e.g., ‘‘chimpanzees have light skin’’ but
their dark-skinned face ‘‘is from tanning of the pale faces
they have at birth’’ (p. 25). Building on false facts,
Mr. Wade makes some far-fetched claims: 1) immunity to
prions (the virus-like proteins causing mad-cow disease,
i.e., bovine spongiform encephalopathy) reflects our cannibalistic heritage and 2) over a 600-year period, Ashkenazi Jews evolved superior intelligence in response to
complex financial jobs using Roman numerals without
the convenience of zero.
Mr. Wade alone, however, cannot take credit for all
these gems of misinformation. Major international journals, the source for many of these ‘‘scienterrific’’ DNA
studies, are under economic pressure to showcase revolutionary finds and have left a legacy of fallacious ones
including cold fusion, Martian life-forms, and disreputable ancestors (e.g., Piltdown man and Ramapithecus)
wielding tools and walking bipedally. Mr. Wade, however,
must take full credit for not checking facts and objectively reporting conclusions. Much of the nongenetic information (see notes, pp. 281–296) references outdated
texts. More often than not, the science behind the claims
goes unexplained, for example: 1) How can DNA estimate past population sizes? 2) How are silent mutation
rates known? 3) How are the dates for when humans left
Africa estimated? and 4) How is lateral transfer of characters corrected for in phylogenies or language genealogies? Failure to address such questions and note confounding variables affecting reported studies reflects
unfamiliarity with science and a penchant for glorifying
it rather than dealing with drawbacks that may make
its conclusions tentative.
The Jefferson DNA study is emblematic of all the
reported science stories. Although the question of
whether Thomas Jefferson fathered a child with his
house slave, Sally Hemmings, as inferred from his family’s Y-chromosome, is of questionable consequence to
prehistory or history, no fewer than seven pages are
dedicated to it. Unmentioned are the facts that the child
in question was conceived when Jefferson was 65 years
of age and that younger relatives-two of his brother’s
sons, a brother, and an unknown number of male slaves
fathered by indeterminate Jeffersons, all with the same
Y-chromosome-lived in the vicinity of Monticello. Because
Wade’s account includes false statements (Jefferson ‘‘let all
of Sally’s children go free’’ [p. 258]); conclusory allegations
(‘‘his white family and his unacknowledged black family
lived side by side’’ ([p. 263]); and incorrectly makes a journalist’s prose appear as a witness’s verbatim statement
(see pp. 257–58), it cannot be merely dismissed as shoddy
research but shows a clear bias aimed at venerating the
reported study.
In The Singing Neanderthals, Stephen Mithen attempts to construct an evolutionary history of music.
Except for an introductory first chapter, which stands by
itself as a preface, the book is divided into two parts.
The first part (Chapters 2–7) is intended to provide
background for the second part (Chapters 8–17). Chapter
2 describes and defines differences between language
and music and introduces the unexplained acronym
‘‘Hmmmmm,’’ which is used to egg readers on. Subsequent chapters (3–7) present clinical case studies
emphasizing links between brain function, music, and
language. The second part begins with ape and monkey
communication and reveals ‘‘Hmmmm’’ to be the
‘‘Holistic, manipulative, multimodal, and musical’’ ape
communication system. According to Mithen, humans
evolved a unique mimetic component to their communication system which changes the ape Hmmmm into
Hmmmmm. In the remaining chapters (9–17), Mithen
draws on a wide range of disciplines (e.g., child development, linguistics, paleoanthropology, archaeology, primatology, clinical neurology, etc.) to argue that music as a
communication system appeared early in human evolution with Homo, reached its zenith in Neanderthals, and
predated language, which occurred much later. Disappointingly, Mithen’s arguments are undermined by an
ambiguous definition of music that changes for convenience sake: it is broadly defined in Platonic terms (i.e.,
the collective rhythmical behavior of a group) when
reconstructing its evolutionary history, but does not
include rhythm perception when discussing clinical case
studies. In the end, it is not clear how the shared ape
musical component evolved into Neanderthals’ ‘‘progressive’’ musical sensibilities or modern human music or
why singing is a logical precursor for language.
The latter hypothesis has been cogently elaborated on by
the linguist Bruce Richman (in The Origins of Music
[2000]) and is misappropriated by Mithen without due
credit. Unfortunately, Mithen fails to convincingly articulate Richman’s hypothesis, providing a noncredible version
open to ridicule. In fact, Mithen appears to be more preoccupied with pushing flavor-of-the-day science than with
underscoring evidence to back up hypotheses. He neglects
the large body of literature on physiology and resonance
physics; primate vocal tract and hearing specializations;
hominoid facial muscle anatomy; and the origins of music.
He reports instead on oxytocin and trusting behavior, clothing and body lice, language genes, brain and group size,
etc., and incorrectly credits Dennis Bramblet and Daniel
Lieberman for David Carrier’s 20-year-old human running
hypothesis. Not coincidentally, many of these same stories
appear in Before the Dawn, but none are directly relevant
to Mithen’s central arguments.
Through it all, Mithen remorselessly bludgeons the
reader with false facts, demonstrating an exceptional
John Tyler Bonner. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press. 2006. 176 pp. ISBN 0-691-12850-2. $16.95 (cloth).
Jacques Monod, referring to fundamental aspects of
gene expression regulation, stated that ‘‘Anything found
to be true of E. coli must also be true of elephants.’’ His
words bear more meaning than anyone could have envisioned. As John Tyler Bonner’s captivating book will
reveal, Monod’s statement reaches far beyond the principles of gene regulation to which it originally pertained.
Just to provide one example from Bonner’s text, if we
divide the size of an organism by the average distance
between individuals, the resulting dimensionless value
will be within the same order of magnitude, even for
American Journal of Physical Anthropology
creativity for fabricating them in all disciplines he borrows from. For instance, Lucy’s (AL 288-1) ‘‘pelvis is
short with its blades rotated inwards . . . and the articulation of the big toe with the main portion of the foot
indicates that it was parallel rather than divergent’’
(p. 141). The reader is often left to wonder at Mithen’s
psychic powers, e.g., Neanderthals ‘‘could not bring their
technical and natural history intelligence together into a
single thought’’ (p. 232) and ‘‘evolved neural networks
for musical features of ‘Hmmmmm’ that did not evolve
in the Homo sapiens lineage’’ (p. 245). Alas, Mithen’s
powers appear to rival those of Nicholas Wade, leading
him to similar conclusions, e.g., Neanderthals ‘‘had
large, barrel-like chests and carried substantial muscle’’
(p. 224) and ‘‘appear to be so primitive . . . because of . . .
the absence of symbolic thought and their lack of language’’ (p. 232). The false fact onslaught is so relentless
that most readers will be hard pressed to finish the book
or peruse the 52 pages of superfluous and redundant
notes. The 20 figures add little to the text. Most are poor
quality line-drawings of artifacts or hominid fossils lifted
from other sources. The accuracy of the few data figures
included is dubious. A phylogeny claimed to be based on
molecular genetics (Fig. 6), shows tarsiiform divergence
postdating strepsirrhine divergence.
Yesteryear’s heaven-and-hell dogma was written to
reinforce religious power and control human behavior.
Current motives for venerating selected science studies
and propagating false facts may not be as apparent, but
are unlikely to have changed much over time. Given
their authors’ underlying priorities and obligations,
these books fail to provide readers with an understanding of science and are at best chronicles of present day
socioeconomic agendas and power structures in academia. Fortunately for science, they are unlikely to have
a long shelf life.
American Museum of Natural History
New York, New York
DOI 10.1002/ajpa.20755
Published online 13 November 2007 in Wiley InterScience
organisms such as bacteria and elephants, which span
seven orders of magnitude in size.
Bonner’s Why Size Matters: From Bacteria to Blue
Whales vividly illustrates how size has become one of
the most fascinating topics across biological, physical,
and social sciences. The reader is first introduced to
discussions about the enormous size variety across species, and subsequent chapters explore how these large
size differences impact all aspects of existence. The various sections of the book illustrate how strength, surface, complexity, abundance, and metabolic rate are
all inextricably linked to weight, rendering size one of
the focal determinants of the various properties of an
organism. This concept represents the central pillar of
the book, and the discussions that explore the complex
relationships of size with shape, longevity, sound,
speed, division of labor, geographic abundance, and
metabolic rate across a broad range of organisms are
all reminiscent of a statement in the preface that illustrates the importance of this concept: ‘‘there is hardly
anything we observe in daily life that we, either consciously or unconsciously, do not take measure of its
size’’ (pp. ix).
Thought-provoking ideas abound throughout the book.
Does being smaller come with any advantages for noticing smaller things? Why are the biggest animals, such
as dinosaurs, the ones that mostly became extinct, while
the smallest ones, such as bacteria, not only enjoyed a
successful start but are even today ubiquitous inhabitants of our planet? Why is the size of cells making up
the various organisms remarkably constant, despite the
tremendous variation in the size of organisms? How do
organisms become multicellular, and what advantages
does togetherness offer? In Bonner’s book, concepts from
biological and physical sciences become intertwined with
literature and history. The three size levels in Gulliver’s
world become a source for fascinating discussions. Since
cell size and nucleocytoplasmic ratio are remarkably constant, does this mean that the Brobdingnagians had
more neurons or were more intelligent? If the eyes of the
Lilliputians were made up of fewer cells, were they able
to see smaller objects? Since size is related to sound, and
the Lilliputians must have squeaked like mice, were
they and Gulliver able to hear the words uttered by the
Brobdingnagians? And since size is also related to speed,
did Lilliputians run faster or slower than Brobdingnagians?
Evolutionary concepts about size occupy a fundamental position within the book, and the text will provide
the answer for several intriguing questions. Does size
represent the prime mover that precedes structure, or
does structure lead the way? Are the propelling mechanisms the ones that cause size increase, or is size
increase followed by the selection for movement? Has
the upper limit for size already been reached, and if
Michelle L. Sauther. New York: Springer. 2006. 450 pp.
ISBN 0-387-34585-X. $149.00 (hardcover).
The island of Madagascar provides habitat ranging
from rain forest to spiny desert and from lowland to
high altitude. These niches, that elsewhere would be
inhabited by competitors, are instead occupied by over
40 species of the endemic primate family Lemuridae.
This interesting and informative edited volume reviews
the wealth of recent field data on the behavioral, ecological, physiological, and morphological diversity of
Throughout the book, contributors invoke Wright’s
energy frugality hypothesis to explain the evolution
of lemur adaptations. According to this hypothesis,
the climate on Madagascar is uniquely unpredictable
and harsh, with seasonal habitats that can have
severe resource shortages. As a result of this unpredictability, lemurs have evolved unique traits such as
female dominance, lack of sexual dimorphism,
larger organisms were to emerge on the planet, is there
going to be a need for radically new body plans?
In Bonner’s erudite book, the captivating discussions
surrounding the physics and evolution of size provide
important take-home lessons, particularly for anthropologists. Size, known to impact health and nutritional status, to shape social organization, to influence evolutionary changes in different organs, and to provide a powerful tool for studying migration, is a fundamental
determinant of many other variables, and thus forges a
remarkable link between biology and anthropology. To
recall just one example, tooth shape and structure analyses were indispensable in enhancing our understanding
of dietary socio-economical behaviors from the fossil record. The sections examining the impact of size on longevity and speed are an invaluable resource of stimulating concepts that will particularly benefit an audience
with a physical anthropology background. Moreover, the
length of the small section entitled ‘‘Size and Song’’ is
inversely related to its profound implications for an audience of linguistic anthropologists.
As a cardinal take-home lesson from the book, we
should appreciate the tremendous impact that size
exerts on both the living and the inanimate worlds. Size
acts as a connector between strength, surface, weight,
division of labor, metabolism, speed, and abundance;
these categories are interdependent, and a change in one
engenders changes in the others. Size changes and their
ample consequences are probably best illustrated by a
statement in Bonner’s book that could very well become
size’s most relevant definition: ‘‘Size rules life.’’
Department of Pathology
New York University School of Medicine
New York, New York
DOI 10.1002/ajpa.20759
Published online 7 December 2007 in Wiley InterScience
seasonal breeding, cathemerality, low metabolic rate,
and energy conservation to the extreme of going into
After a useful overview by the editors, the book begins
with a look at the history of both lemurs and lemur
research. It is ironic that the delightful chapter by Jolly
and Sussman chronicling the beginnings of ecological
studies of lemurs is placed between the two paleontology
chapters. Their descriptions of researcher lineages and
key findings over the years trace the evolution of our
understanding of lemur diversity and will be invaluable
to future students of the field.
Lemurs appear to have derived from a single tropicalforest canopy-dwelling ancestor that colonized the island
sometime early in the Tertiary. A generalist tendency
has been present from the start (Tattersall). Despite the
enormous size of Madagascar’s large-bodied subfossil
lemurs, they were more similar to extant lemurs than to
like-sized anthropoids and had energy-conserving lifestyles similar to those of lemurs today (Godfrey, Jungers,
and Schwartz).
American Journal of Physical Anthropology
Extant lemurs have a unique morphology and physiology that interacts with their environments. For
instance, recent data on the interplay of dentition and
ecology may help us interpret lemur paleobiology and
evolution (Cuozzo and Yamashita). Among primates,
the occurrence of torpid states is only known in cheirogaleids. Cheirogaleus medius saves as much as 70%
of its energy when it hibernates during the austral
winter, but the insulating qualities of its tree hole
determine whether the lemur will periodically arouse
(Fietz and Dausmann). Eulemur coronatus and Eulemur fulvus sanfordi typically show vertical partitioning of their forest resources but respond to the seasonal reduction of resources by forming polyspecific
associations (Freed). Cathemerality (being active day
and night) and visual morphology intermediate
between those of diurnal and nocturnal animals are
common in lemurs but rare in other primates. These
traits permit temporal flexibility and niche separation
(Curtis). The aye-aye’s large body size, continually
growing incisors, and probe-like middle finger are
unique morphological traits that allow it to exploit otherwise unavailable resources (Sterling and McCreless).
Other research further connects ecology and
adaptation. Eulemur species are the most widespread
of the diurnal lemurs, and variation among the species
within this genus reflects the influence of a combination of behavioral flexibility and localized evolution
of individual populations and taxa (Johnson). Microcebus is a diverse nocturnal genus that varies ecologically between populations, shows daily torpor, reproduces seasonally, can produce more than one litter per
year, and is subject to heavy predation, resulting in
the highest turnover rate known for primate populations (Radespiel). Eulemur rubiventer exhibits pairbonding, which is rare in nonhuman primates. Males
are helpers and codefenders of resources (Overdorff
and Tecot).
The multimale–multifemale troops of Lemur catta
range from spiny forest to gallery forest to high-altitude
locations above the tree line. Their food choices, ranging, social behavior, and population size vary with habitat and season (Gould). Varecia have high reproductive
costs but are reliant on a spatiotemporally patchy frugivorous diet. This genus has adapted by giving birth to
litters that it parks in nests, alloparenting with other
community members, and having a fission–fusion social
organization (Vasey). Propithecus home-range size is
more influenced by local ecology than phylogeny; however, the low-population density, resistance to crossing
open areas, and intolerance of human-dominated landscapes shown by rainforest-dwelling species make them
vulnerable to the consequences of forest fragmentation
Although both genera are nocturnal, folivorous, and
pair living, Avahi lives in spatially gregarious, small, cohesive family groups, and Lepilemur lives in dispersed
family groups, unlike what was previously thought for
each (Thalmann). The duetting long call sung by Indri
maintains territorial boundaries and is an energy-minimizing substitute for patrolling borders that allows this
midgut-fermenting folivore to rest and digest (Powzyk
and Mowry). Lastly, the three species of Hapalemur are
the ecological equivalents of pandas because they feed on
a variety of grasses and bamboo. Unfortunately, this dietary specialization makes them vulnerable to microhabitat changes and competition with humans for the bamboo
Current environmental changes may require continuing adaptation by lemurs. Climate change may
exacerbate the extremes of weather that characterize
Madagascar (Wright). Varecia, which has a diet of 75%
fruit, was able to adapt to the combination of a devastating cyclone and anthropogenic disturbance by shifting from its preferred tree foods to nontree foods,
including exotic species (Ratsimbazafy). However,
because of their long isolation on Madagascar, lemurs
may be especially susceptible to pathogens, both from
humans and from the animals that accompany them
(Junge and Sauther).
This book is up to date and very well written. It will
be useful to scientists interested in the latest information on individual species, for upper undergraduate and
graduate-level primatology courses, to anyone looking
for examples of the interaction between phylogeny, ecology, and social systems, and for those concerned about
the conservation of biodiversity. Climate and anthropogenic change may cause progressive alteration and fragmentation of lemur habitats leading to increasing isolation of populations and speciation. Having this book as
a comprehensive resource on the adaptations shown by
extinct and extant lemurs will enable us to predict how
they will respond to continuing change and how best
we can help them survive.
NATIVE AMERICANS. By Joseph F. Powell. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press. 2005. 268 pp. ISBN 0-52153035-0. $130.00 (hardcover).
Americas are compared with existing databases that
contain data representing biological variation from
around the world. Unfortunately, many of these studies
lack an evolutionary perspective and treat these traits
as being static over time. Biological heterogeneity in
the Americas is far too often explained from a migrationist racial–typological perspective. In The First
Americans: Race, Evolution, and the Origin of Native
Americans, Powell brings needed population genetic
The study of the peopling of the Americas proceeds
using the comparative method. Cranial characteristics,
mitochondrial haplotypes, dental traits, and other
measures of biology from prehistoric remains in the
American Journal of Physical Anthropology
Department of Anthropology
University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon
DOI 10.1002/ajpa.20760
Published online 7 December 2007 in Wiley InterScience
models and a microevolutionary perspective to the
study of the first Americans.
Indeed, the main dichotomy that Powell presents is
the migrationist (racial–typological) versus in situ
(microevolutionary) view of biological heterogeneity in
the Americas. Powell uses this dichotomy ‘‘to dissuade
my anthropological colleagues from using simplified
racial and migrationist models typical in research during
the first half of the twentieth century’’ (p12). Overall,
Powell is successful in demonstrating the usefulness of
evolutionary models in studying human biological variation. For those interested in teaching basic evolutionary
concepts in the context of anthropology and the peopling
of the Americas, this is the book for you and your
The book begins by discussing the relationships
between researchers, the government, and Native American communities through a review of NAGPRA and the
‘‘Kennewick Saga.’’ It is made clear through these examples how studies of human biology are influenced by the
social and political issues of the time. Powell notes that
NAGPRA does not signal the end of the study of prehistoric remains in the United States but encourages
researchers to collaborate with the descendant communities of the ancestors they study. However, no details of
researchers productively collaborating with Native
American communities are given, although numerous
examples exist.
In Chapter 2, Powell does an adequate job of explaining the history of the race concept and the problems
with essentialist views of human variation. However, for
many anthropologists, race is the central topic of discussion, and Powell’s treatment of race is far from exhaustive. Fortunately for those wishing to provide students
more in-depth readings on the race concept, we can supplement this chapter with readings from the American
Anthropological Association Web site (http://www.under
Subsequent chapters review basic concepts of inheritance, population genetics, and quantitative genetics. In
addition, simple evolutionary models such as Wright’s
island model, stepping-stone models, and isolation by
distance are described in an easy to understand manner.
The weakest chapter of the book is the one that
describes studies of genetic markers of populations in
the Americas (Chapter 4). The chapter is simply out of
date, as any chapter in a book on this topic would be
considering the rate at which the field of molecular
anthropology is progressing.
The jewel of the book and what makes it a worthy
member of your library is Chapter 7. In this chapter,
Powell’s knowledge of and familiarity with Paleoindian
and Early Archaic skeletons is exemplified. He provides
an overview of the important specimens in the Americas
and efficiently explains the context of each specimen and
why it is important. For those unable to find the time to
trudge through the vast and dense literature of site
reports, articles, and monographs on the Early Archaic,
this chapter will be invaluable!
This book exemplifies the interdisciplinary nature of
the study of the peopling of the Americas. Chapters are
devoted to diverse topics including past cultures, past
environments, genetic markers, dental variation, and, of
course, cranial variation. Each of these disciplines provides a unique window through which to view population
history in the Americas. In the best circumstances, different lines of evidence can come together to support a
model of population history. In the worst scenario,
researchers with limited data sets possessing inadequate
statistical power turn away from hypothesis testing and
resort to storytelling propped up by cherry-picked evidence from other subdisciplines. Powell warns against
the latter temptation and admits that he himself has
been guilty of this in the past. Overall, Powell provides a
compelling argument demonstrating how the use of
microevolutionary principles and hypothesis testing can
bring clarity to a complex and interdisciplinary field of
study such as the peopling of the Americas.
Department of Anthropology
Institute for Genomic Biology
University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign
Urbana, Illinois
DOI 10.1002/ajpa.20767
Published online 27 December 2007 in Wiley InterScience
American Journal of Physical Anthropology
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