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Tianjin Binhai Library

Tianjin China

On this page we share our monthly book review as published in the magazine, and we also list eight selected book titles. These books are not exclusively related to Humanism, and some are viewed as adding to, or even challenging, the overall lexicon of thought and values that are important to the Humanist dialogue.  

Book Review by David Warden 

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David Warden provides our monthly book review, and this month he reviews

​​'Human Evolution ’ (2014) by

Robin Dunbar

Robin Dunbar is an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist and a specialist in primate behaviour. He is currently head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford.

This book is not an easy read. It’s detailed and quite theoretical. But I believe that humanists should make an effort to learn about our fascinating evolutionary history and how human beings came to be what we are today. I was introduced to the distinction between ‘hominids’ and ‘hominins’ back in 2015 when Dorset Humanists had a talk on human evolution. Dunbar informs us that ‘taxonomists now refer to the great ape family (including humans, gorillas, and chimps) as hominids, while all members of the lineage leading to modern humans that arose after the split with the Last Common Ancestor are referred to as hominins.’

 

So we’re both hominid and hominin. The hominid family tree goes back 18 million years and includes all the apes, orangs and gibbons. The hominin branch line, which includes us and earlier species such as Australopithecus, goes back 6 million years – the point at which hominins share a common ancestor with chimps. Archaic humans appeared on the line about 2 million years ago and we are the most recent (200,000 years) and the last surviving representative. Human species have included Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo floresiensis, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens.

All human species originated in Africa. Europe was populated by the Neanderthals long before we arrived. Neanderthals had big brains like us but it seems that their brain power was concentrated in visual processing rather than the large prefrontal cortex of Homo sapiens.

 

The evolutionary advantage of our large PFC seems to have been the maintenance of large social groups and networks. This seems to have given us a critical advantage in surviving the last Ice Age which started 100,000 years ago and ended about 12,000 years ago.

Imagine being a human without supermarkets, houses, agriculture, clothes, music, or even language. All of these things have emerged slowly over hundreds of thousands of years. Organised religion seems to have evolved for the purposes of community cohesion when human settlements grew beyond about 500 inhabitants. Rampant individualism wouldn’t have worked too well for survival purposes.

We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. We regularly hear that we have messed up the planet and that the sooner we go extinct the better. We are a humble ape doing our best. Extinction is inevitable but not imminent.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_Dunbar

Some selected books for your consideration

At Humanistically Speaking we feel that book ownership brings two universal truths with it. The first is that each book is personal to the individual, and the second follows on from the first, in that, if someone is daft enough, or worse opinionated enough, to list their 'best books', then it's near certain that there will be some form of response.

 

Here is our current selection of titles, including two that provide some additional in-depth anlaysis to support the main theme of this month's magazine - human evolution.

Our Human Story

Our Human Story is a guide to our fossil relatives, from what may be the earliest hominins such as Sahelanthropus, dating back six to seven million years, through to our own species, Homo sapiens.

Over the past 25 years there has been an explosion of species' names in the story of human evolution, due both to new discoveries and to a growing understanding of the diversity that existed in the past. Drawing on this new information, as well as their own considerable expertise and practical experience, Louise Humphrey and Chris Stringer explain in clear and accessible terms what each of the key species represents and how it contributes to our knowledge of human evolution.

They describe the main sites, the individual fossils, the people and stories involved in the key discoveries and the basic facts about each species what it looked like, how and when it lived and what it ate as well as explaining how we know all this.

The book includes drawings, photographs and maps throughout to illustrate and enhance the text and help demystify the fascinating cast of characters who hold the secret to humankind's origins.

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Why Evolution is True

Why Evolution is True focuses on the hard evidence that proves evolution by natural selection to be a fact.

 

Weaving together and explaining the latest discoveries and ideas from many disparate areas of modern science, this succinct and important book will leave no one with an open mind in any doubt about the truth - and the beauty - of evolution.

  • While other books describe the concept and the processes by which evolution proceeds, Why Evolution is True presents the evidence: using modern science to demonstrate the 'indelible stamp' of the process first proposed by Darwin.

  • Allows the reader to understand all the evidence, drawn from diverse areas of modern science, which supports Darwinian evolution.

  • Presents the very latest research from the fields of genetics, palaeontology, geology, molecular biology, anatomy, and development.

  • Written by one of the world's foremost evolutionary biologists

  • Besides examining the evidence, the book dispels common misunderstandings about what evolution is: whether it is a fact or 'only' a theory, and what its implications are for human culture and for our sense of purpose and meaning.

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The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being

This wonderful book could easily be called 'How to Build a Human', as it takes the grand unifying ideas of biology and synthesises them into a manual of development from conception to birth. Each one of us starts our tenure on Earth as a single cell, and ends up as 100 trillion (or so), all specialised for function.

Alice Roberts takes you on the most incredible journey, revealing your path from a single cell to a complex embryo to a living, breathing, thinking person. It's a story that connects us with our distant ancestors and an extraordinary, unlikely chain of events that shaped human development and left a mark on all of us.

 

The author uses the latest research to uncover the evolutionary history hidden in all of us, from the secrets found only in our embryos and genes - including why as embroyos we have what look like gills - to those visible in your anatomy. This is a tale of discovery, exploring why and how we have developed as we have. This is your story, told as never before.

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins is an internationally acclaimed author and a committed Humanist.

The God Delusion caused a sensation when it was published in 2006. Within weeks it became the most hotly debated topic, with Dawkins himself branded as either saint or sinner for presenting his hard-hitting, impassioned rebuttal of religion of all types.

 

His argument could hardly be more topical. While Europe is becoming increasingly secularized, the rise of religious fundamentalism, whether in the Middle East or Middle America, is dramatically and dangerously dividing opinion around the world.

 

In America, and elsewhere, a vigorous dispute between 'intelligent design' and Darwinism is seriously undermining and restricting the teaching of science. In many countries religious dogma from medieval times still serves to abuse basic human rights such as women's and gay rights. And all from a belief in a God whose existence lacks evidence of any kind.

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Is Nothing Sacred

We call many things sacred, from cows, churches and paintings to flags and burial grounds. Is it still meaningful to talk of things being sacred, or is the idea merely a relic of a bygone religious age? Does everything - and every life - have its price?

Is Nothing Sacred? is a stimulating and wide-ranging debate about some of the major moral dilemmas facing us today, such as the value of human life, art, the environment, and personal freedom.

Packed with clearly presented controversial issues, we are asked to decide whether we should revere life when someone chooses to die, preserve the giant California redwoods, cherish Vermeer's originals for their own sake, or curtail personal freedom for the greater good. Ronald Dworkin argues that the concept of the scared is essential to any human ethics, and Simon Blackburn explains why he thinks 'a humanist should not feel guilty at the emotions of awe and reverence that can be inspired by great religious works of art. Throughout, the idea of the sacred in a secular age is hotly debated amongst the authors and put to the test: should it be abandoned altogether, or does it still have something to teach us?

Is Nothing Sacred? brings together outstanding philosophers and thinkers, including Suzanne Uniacke, Michael Clark, Alan Holland, Simon Blackburn, Richard Dawkins, Richard Norman, Alan Howarth, Nigel Warburton, Matthew Kieran and John Harris.

God created Humanism

For those that might be interested in the relationship between Humanism and Christianity, this book attempts an insightful study as to how the two have been painted with a false dichotomy.

 

In this compelling account of the origins and evolution of our secular worldview, Theo Hobson shows how Christian values continue to underpin our public morality, how faith remains indispensable to Western humanism, and how atheistic humanism represents a dead end.

At the same time, he offers a timely warning against the dangers of a religious-secular culture war, given the radically politicized and destructive forms of religion endemic in the world today. Here is a fresh and provocative argument about religion and politics but one that doesn t fit into the normal boxes. It suggests that although the public creed of the West is best described as secular humanism we can only really understand and affirm secular humanism if we see how firmly it is based on Christian norms and values. If we don't, the West is divided: mired in a stagnant stand-off between fundamentalist atheism and an equally hard-line Christian theism.

 

This book offers a more nuanced and historically more persuasive way forward, showing just how much our secular morality owes to Christianity, and how it can only find coherence through a new and positive view of its origins.

Atheism for Kids

Atheism For Kids tackles these questions head-on, in a fun and beautifully-illustrated book written for children who are exploring religious ideas in an increasingly secular world.Atheism For Kids asks open-ended and non-judgmental questions about religion, with suggestions for how we might choose to live if we opt for an atheist or humanist lifestyle instead.

An indispensable guide for anybody parenting atheist children or interested in explaining religion to children, this book:
 

  • Encourages critical and evidence-based thinking.

  • Offers the foundations for a moral and spiritual framework outside of religion.

  • Promotes key humanist values including tolerance and compassion for all, regardless of religious background or experience.

  • Atheism for Kids was written alongside the British National Curriculum, and is ideal for home educators or those teaching atheism in schools

Sapiens                                       

100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens.

How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?

In Sapiens, Dr Yuval Noah Harari spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical – and sometimes devastating – breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, paleontology and economics, he explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities. Have we become happier as history has unfolded? Can we ever free our behaviour from the heritage of our ancestors? And what, if anything, can we do to influence the course of the centuries to come?