The Ape That Spoke

Recent work in archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, psychology, neurobiology, and cognitive science has spurred interdisciplinary studies of human evolution, the origins and development of language, and the distinctive qualities of human intelligence and consciousness. Many of these studies, such as Philip Lieberman’s UNIQUELY HUMAN: THE EVOLUTION OF SPEECH, THOUGHT, AND SELFLESS BEHAVIOR (1991) and Michael C. Corballis’ THE LOPSIDED APE: EVOLUTION OF THE GENERATIVE MIND (1991), have been written by scientists who have been compelled by their subject to move outside the boundaries of their particular expertise. These studies are works of synthesis, with a high proportion of speculation.

THE APE THAT SPOKE is a similar sort of project, but one that is pitched at a lower level. The author, John McCrone, is a science journalist; according to the dust jacket, he “spent five years researching and writing this book.” Unfortunately, instead of a clear, accurate layperson’s introduction he has produced a muddled, sloppy book that is especially irritating in its breezy pretensions.

It would require pages to enumerate McCrone’s factual errors, large and small, quite apart from issues of interpretation. A few examples will have to suffice. Alphabetic writing did not reach ancient Greece “in the time of Plato” but rather at least three centuries before Plato—five centuries or more, according to some scholars. The Chinese written language is not primarily pictographic, nor does one need to learn “forty thousand symbols” to become literate in Chinese. The “nineteenth-century Russian reporter named Shereshevskii” whose phenomenal memory was described by A.R. Luria in THE MIND OF A MNEMONIST actually belongs to the twentieth century, not the nineteenth.

Taken individually, such errors may seem relatively insignificant. Taken as a whole, though—and there are many more—they indicate a pervasive carelessness and superficiality that affects every aspect of the book, not just the details.