I'm about to start Origins Reconsidered - The Search For What Makes Us Human, Richard Leakey's follow-up to his famous Origins. If the author's name sounds familiar, it's because he's the son of the world's most famous paleontologists, Mary and Louis Leakey.
There's cool info about the whole family on their foundation's website. So much of what is known about early humans goes back to the Leakeys' groundbreaking work. Their granddaughter, Louise Leakey, carries on the family tradition. There's a profile of Mary and Louis in Time's "100 Most Important People of the Century".
From the Origins Reconsidered jacket:
... For Richard Leakey the most compelling question is no longer "How did we physically evolve?" It is, instead, "How did we become human?" For this world-renowned paleoanthropologist it is a humbling reminder that no matter how complete the skeleton, how perfect the fossil, there is a gap in our knowledge. Our ancestors evolved from two-legged scavengers into creatures that create. They learned to make stone tools, to communicate, to build shelters, and to hunt for food.I think this sounds fascinating. These days it's popular to cherry-pick anthropology and paleontology out of context, and use selected (and often disputed) ideas to reinforce stereotypes - the "men are from Mars, women like repetitive tasks" crew. But as Jared Diamond showed us in Guns, Germs and Steel, those disciplines still have a lot to teach us.
This realization sparked Leakey to return to his earlier work - especially his 1977 book, Origins - to poke holes in his previous beliefs and to reflect anew on what makes us who we are. As he gently admits, considerations like these are usually left to philosophers, not scientists. But again and again, he is faced with his own guiding principle: "The past is the key to our future."
In this seminal work, Leakey incorporates ideas from philosophy, anthropology, molecular biology, and even linguistics, to investigate not only how we evolved anatomically, but how we acquired the qualities that makes us human - consciousness, creativity and culture.
I hope I can understand this book enough to enjoy it. Sometimes the science that fascinates me isn't written for my level of knowledge. Leakey's co-author, Roger Lewin, is a famous science writer, so maybe that bodes well.