Monday, 13 June 2005

The Eternal Child – Clive Bromhall *****

This is simply one of the best, most riveting popular science books we’ve ever seen. At first sight, Clive Bromhall’s book is revolutionary, but before long it’s difficult not to think “but it was obvious, really” – one of the strong indicators of a great theory. Along the way it explains many of the oddities of the human ape. I’ve often walked my dog over rough terrain, through thistles and nettles, and envied the protection of her coat – it just doesn’t make sense that we’re practically hairless. As runners (to get away from predators or catch prey) we’re absolutely feeble. We can’t even outrun a rabbit. And then there are the behaviours of our species like homosexuality that seem to run counter to natural selection. What’s it all about?
Bromhall argues powerfully that most of our oddities (compared to other apes) as a species are just a side effect of staying in an infantile state. Our lack of hair, upright stance and much more is typical of a newborn ape, rather than a mature one. And all of this, he suggests, is because as our predecessors moved from the safety of the trees to the savannah they needed to be able to function as a large group to survive. Chimps, for instance, just couldn’t do this. Get more than about half a dozen together and you end up with a bloodbath as they fight for position. But infant apes are more cooperative, and most of our strange looks and behaviour seem tied in to this essential survival requirement to be able to function in large groups.
The book is wonderful, partly because it explains so many things that didn’t make sense before, and partly because Bromhall writes in an engaging and entertaining way.
There are a couple of flaws. He can’t resists getting into a sort of infantile version of a personality profile at the back of the book, dividing humanity up into four different types. This is quite unnecessary, distracts from the main message, and makes the book’s ending the weakest part. He also, very occasionally makes wild leaps of logic that don’t seem based on sense. For example at one point he suggests that the Christian cross may be derived from a mother goddess symbol. This is a bit like suggesting the London Eye’s logo is derived from a sun god symbol, because it’s disc shaped. Er, no, it’s because the London Eye is circular. Similarly, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the Christian cross is the shape it is because that’s the shape of the Roman instrument of execution used on Jesus. To look for more complex explanations smacks of having a theory and trying to make the facts fit. However this criticism doesn’t apply to any of the main parts of his thesis, so doesn’t change the impact of the book.
Be warned, also, that quite a lot of the book is about sexuality, so it may not be appropriate for younger readers.
Even if you aren’t the sort of person who normally reads anthropology or “where did we come from” type books, it’s worth giving this a try – it’s a gem!
Review by Brian Clegg