Ian Tattersall

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What is a summary of "Monkey in the Mirror"?

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Monkey in the Mirror is a 2001 collection of essays about evolution. Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall explains basic concepts of evolution, especially in regard to the emergence of human beings, and how the concepts have changed since Charles Darwin began to publish about them. The author shows that evolution yields organisms that are well suited to their environment but not every part serves their function perfectly; much also depends on serendipity. Demonstrating where human beings fit as primates into the larger scheme, the author explains which traits tend to make our species succeed in adapting to the widest range of environments. While this relates primarily to our brains, our cerebral powers would be far more limited if other body parts did not function equally well.

The title is based on the idea that humans uniquely recognize their own reflection. This stands for a finely developed sense of individual identity. Apes, but not monkeys, share this trait with us. This observation leads the author into the issue of what defines humanness. He reviews evidence supporting explanations for the point and criterion that changed our ancestors to distinguish them from apes and step onto a path toward becoming Homo sapiens. Tattersall reviews the changing theories posed in recent decades, including brain size, dexterity, and—most recently—walking upright. The importance of bipedal locomotion in hominid species over the preceding millions is stressed, especially in relation to cultural remains found in the fossil record. Tattersall reviews related theories about ways that walking upright related to brain size and, in turn, to the unique capacity for abstraction and thinking with symbols.

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