The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack Summary and Reviews

The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack

and Other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution

by Ian Tattersall

The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack by Ian Tattersall X
The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack by Ian Tattersall
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Book Summary

In his new book The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack, human paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall argues that a long tradition of "human exceptionalism" in paleoanthropology has distorted the picture of human evolution. Drawing partly on his own career - from young scientist in awe of his elders to crotchety elder statesman - Tattersall offers an idiosyncratic look at the competitive world of paleoanthropology, beginning with Charles Darwin 150 years ago, and continuing through the Leakey dynasty in Africa, and concluding with the latest astonishing findings in the Caucasus.

The book's title refers to the 1856 discovery of a clearly very old skull cap in Germany's Neander Valley. The possessor had a brain as large as a modern human, but a heavy low braincase with a prominent brow ridge. Scientists tried hard to explain away the inconvenient possibility that this was not actually our direct relative. One extreme interpretation suggested that the preserved leg bones were curved by both rickets, and by a life on horseback. The pain of the unfortunate individual's affliction had caused him to chronically furrow his brow in agony, leading to the excessive development of bone above the eye sockets.

The subsequent history of human evolutionary studies is full of similarly fanciful interpretations. With tact and humor, Tattersall concludes that we are not the perfected products of natural processes, but instead the result of substantial doses of random happenstance.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. An opinionated, authoritative, and delightfully provocative account of efforts to make sense of human fossil discoveries." - Kirkus

"Starred Review. Though 'a very personal account,' this is superb science history." - Booklist

"Readers expecting a detailed survey of hominid fossils and their evolutionary relationship to one another will have to look elsewhere. [Tattersall] takes on a host of intellectual problems that have befuddled the field and thereby illuminates the nature of scientific progress." - Publishers Weekly

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Author Information

Ian Tattersall

Ian Tattersall is Curator Emeritus in the Division of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The author of many books, including the widely praised Masters of the Planet, he is often interviewed about human evolution in the media and speaks around the world. He is the winner of numerous awards, and lives in Greenwich Village.

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