Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Paleontology: A Brief History of Life"



The Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology, and Science brings academics, students, and independent scholars together each month to wrestle with big issues, such as "what does it mean to be human?" We've been meeting for over a decade now and recently the group considered the work of Ian Tattersall, a curator in the Division of Anthropology at New York's American Museum of Natural History. Trained in archaeology, anthropology and vertebrate paleontology, Tattersall has specialized in the evolutionary analysis of the human fossil record and most especially the mysterious origin of human cognition.

His "Paleontology: A Brief History of Life" ($19.95 in paperback from Templeton Press; also for Amazon Kindle) is a lucid overview of the field. Part of Templeton's "Science And Religion Series," the book begins with the development of the "Tree of Life" and ends with an exploration of Homo sapiens.

Tattersall maintains that "the traditional paleo-anthropological expectation that human evolution has been a single-minded, unilinear slog from primitiveness to perfection" is just plain wrong. "At virtually all points in human evolutionary history," he writes, "several hominid species have coexisted (and at least intermittently competed). That Homo sapiens is the lone hominid in the world today is a highly atypical situation."

His final chapter considers "A Cognitive Revolution," and Tattersall writes about the identification of "symbolic artefacts," such as engravings, cave paintings, or necklaces, and the development of language, as pointers to a new kind of thinking. The bottom line: "Symbolic Homo sapiens is not a simple extrapolation of what had gone before; it is a qualitatively different entity, not an incremental improvement."

There is an important place, Tattersall says, for human spirituality, and the author considers science and religion to be complementary.

His conclusion, using the image of a rocket, encourages continued thoughtful conversation: "Starting firmly in the material world, you can ride the scientific first stage to the point at which its fuel is exhausted, the point that lies at the limits of testable knowledge. From there—if you wish, or feel the need, as most people seem to—you can ignite the spiritual second stage, and be transported to the limits of the human ability to understand."


Sunday, March 05, 2017

Thirty Years of the Biblio File Column


Cartoon by Steve Ferchaud used by permission of the artist


Back in the last millennium I realized that, though perfect in every other way, the E-R lacked a regular book review. My wife, bless her, encouraged me to do something about that, and to call it the "Biblio File." Though the details have flown the memory coop, I was given my first chance to lay an egg when the column debuted in March 1987, thirty years ago this month. Since then, of course, I've made many omelets possible.

In the early days, way before the digital revolution and the flourishing of local authors, pickings were slim. In one column I reviewed the newly redesigned telephone directory. You want local names? The book was full of them!

Another column was devoted to letters from Chico-area writers published in such prestigious places as The Wall Street Journal (yes, I reviewed letters from locals) and when that vein played out I resorted to connecting my own life experiences.

A memory book recalled my being in a speech contest in which another speaker, who had tried to memorize word for word, stumbled, stopped, and then cried out, "I can't believe it. I just forgot my whole life." Over the years I talked about my uncle's apple orchard, a failed attempt being the family plumber, and about Larry's Little Diner on the Skyway.

As time went by, not only did my picture change (more distinguished now, don't you think?) but so did the column. Personal stories fell away; most weeks now feature a book by an area author or visitor. My goal is to evoke the tone of the book and let readers know what it's about so they can make up their own minds.

Along the way there have been some gratifying notes from readers. Among the most cherished is from the college instructor who wrote in 1997 that "I'm finally compelled to write, simply to thank you for broadening my world…. I am continually inspired by your writing. I appreciate, too, your variety of books."

Variety has been the watchword; from teen romances to government contracting, from travelogues to game wardens, from sci-fi to an elephant ballerina, my own world has broadened as well.

Thank you, writers, and thank you, readers, and thank you, Dear Editor.