The Riddled Chain: Chance, Coincidence and Chaos in Human Evolution

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9780813527833: The Riddled Chain: Chance, Coincidence and Chaos in Human Evolution
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Did human evolution proceed in an inevitable fashion? Can we attribute our origins solely to natural selection, or were more mischievous forces at work?

These are the questions investigated by anthropologist Jeff McKee. He argues that if we were to wind back the clock to our split from ancestral apes, evolution would proceed differently. Ever since our ancestors first stood up on two feet, natural selection undoubtedly was an important factor in guiding human evolution. But McKee shakes the standard notion that natural selection steered early hominids toward particular environmental adaptations. The fossil remains of our ancestors reveal a different story one of an adaptable hominid with no particular direction. It becomes clear that the evolutionary road to Homo sapiens was not paved solely by natural selection; indeed, there was no road to follow. There was just a dim path cut out by prehistoric coincidences and contingencies. Had any link in the evolutionary chain of events been slightly different, then our species would not be as it is today . . . or our ancestors may not have survived at all. 

With equal doses of humor and awe, McKee illustrates how the chain of evolution has been riddled by chance, coincidence, and chaos. He uses familiar examples, noting that many of us exist as individuals because of chance meetings of our parents. From the present back through prehistory, chance is at the heart of our creationÑas is chaos. The classic example of chaos is the butterfly effect: a single butterfly, flapping its wings, causes a tiny change in the atmosphere, which in turn amplifies to affect the course of storms on another continent. McKee ties such examples of unpredictability to fossil evidence and computer simulations, revealing the natural coincidences that shaped our evolution. Although chaos exacted an evolutionary price by limiting the powers of natural selection, it also made us what we are. One can only conclude that human beings were neither inevitable nor probable.

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Early treatments of evolution presented our species' transformation from protohominid to Homo sapiens as an orderly affair, a matter of clear lineages and constant progress. That depiction, archaeologist Jeffrey McKee suggests, is a little too neat. Drawing on recent scholarly views of primate evolution and on chaos theory, he instead argues that coincidence, accident, and dumb luck are critically important components of our species' development.

"Human evolution," McKee writes, "has been the product of many forces that together made us neither inevitable nor probable." The same holds true for other species; with all due respect to Lamarck, McKee adds, the giraffe came to have its long neck by a roll of the genetic dice--but a roll that lent the giraffe a competitive advantage over its shorter-necked browsing cousins, and therefore one subsequently reinforced by natural selection. Illustrating his argument with the well-worn "butterfly effect"--wherein a butterfly flapping its wings in Europe can produce a typhoon half a world away--McKee examines the role of chance in the origin and decline of species, emphasizing how unpredictable the dynamics of life can be, even within the bounds of natural laws.

Within such disorderly circumstances, McKee observes, chance favors species that retain generalized features and behaviors. Whereas "the fossil record is littered with extinct primates that became too specialized," he writes, the ancestors of modern humans were broadly diversified, adapting to different niches and thriving in the bargain. Written well and at an appropriately general level, McKee's book offers a useful survey of current evolutionary thought. --Gregory McNamee

From the Publisher:

Interview with Jeffrey K. McKee Author of The Riddled Chain: Chance, Coincidence, and Chaos in Human Evolution

Q:Why did you decide to write this book?

A:People are curious about human evolution and the scientific study of our origins. A book is an effective and enjoyable means of communicating to fellow scientists and the lay public alike. This book was an opportunity to combine my responsibilities as a researcher and an educator into one work.

Q:When did you begin to formulate your theories about human evolution? What sparked your interest?

A:I began thinking about evolution when I was 13 years old. After watching Louis Leakey on the television, walking down the side of Olduvai Gorge past layer after layer of our past, I was hooked. My current theories have grown from a lifetime interest, which took new directions once I started reading about chaos theory. I am still formulating new theories, and will continue to do so. Science is a dynamic process. Thus my book is merely a step toward better ideas, not an end product of a particular research trajectory.

Q:You write, "The evolution of life is subject to fates wantonly dictated by three ubiquitous and mischievous forces: chance, coincidence, and chaos." Why do you focus this book on "wanton" fates, when other principles of evolution have been so thoroughly established?

A:Chance plays an important role at every level of biological evolution, from genetic recombination to lifetime encounters, and even to the origins of species. Genetic mutation, the mother of invention, occurs where regular biological processes meet chance. Should a mutation successfully spread throughout a population, it is a coincidence that chance met satisfactorily with survival and propagation. Chance and coincidence, along with a host of interacting biological forces including natural selection, set an unpredictable trajectory for the future of a species. The unpredictability wrought by such dynamics is the signature of chaos. Biological evolution may have vague trends, but there was nothing inevitable about human evolution. In the world of chaos, an infinite array of creatures could have evolved from our earliest ancestors - or our ancestors could have gone quietly extinct. There are many biological principles upon which life was built. We must recognize that chance, coincidence, and chaos are among the key principles that created and shaped life as we know it.

Q:You propose theories of natural selection get more credit than they deserve: why?

A:There is no doubt among biologists and paleontologists that the Darwinian notion of evolution through natural selection is very important. I have no qualms about that. But we cannot invoke natural selection as an explanation for every nuance of human biology, or for the biology of any organism. Things are not so ordered, for natural selection has limited powers. That is why I devote a chapter to what is wrong with the human body. The exigencies of chance, coincidence, and chaos have played huge roles in shaping us into the odd beings we are. My aim is to expose those roles, and balance our perspective of human evolution. Once we meld traditional selection theory with chaos theory, we are closer to understanding the nature of life and its origins.

Q:Throughout the book, you write about research you did in South Africa. Why did you choose this location for your research? What type of research did you do? How did your work there influence this book?

A:My academic placement in South Africa was largely a product of chance, like so many things in evolution. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and was offered a position there by the renowned paleoanthropologist, Phillip Tobias. A very important part of the story of human origins played itself out in southern Africa, leaving fossil clues in numerous cave deposits. I've been privileged to help elucidate that segment of human evolution through both excavation and fossil studies. Oddly enough, my misfortune in not finding any hominid fossils during my excavations probably turned to my advantage - it made me focus more on the context and process of human evolution.

Q:What are your thoughts on creationist theories of evolution?

A:Any scientist must be open to any and all ideas and test them against the evidence. You find me one creationist, young earth or old earth, who can give a cogent explanation of the sequences in the fossil record, and I'll listen. Meanwhile, science has a better explanation that fits all the data. I've made an extensive study of creationist literature, and have yet to find any testable "theories" or scientifically valid arguments against evolution. Despite thinly veiled attempts at "creation science" or "intelligent design theory," creationism is a belief system, not a science.
There is no doubt that my portrayal of the roles of chance, coincidence, and chaos will be disquieting to some of the more fundamentalist creationists who oppose science. But many creationists accept the role of evolution in human origins. In my view, religion and science are not antithetical views of life; they are complementary.

Q:In the book you discuss computer simulations you ran to imitate the evolutionary process. Please describe your experiments and results.

A:The computer simulations are an approximation of life as we know it. We cannot recreate life's evolution, but we can create expectations of how life acts under various theoretical models. Computer simulations are thus an effective tool for looking at models of the pace of mammalian evolution, or the relative importance of chaos versus natural selection in evolution at a genetic level. Where the empirical data fit the hypothetical scenarios, we must take note. Where the data do not fit the simulated scenarios, we must rethink our notions of the evolutionary process.

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Book Description Rutgers University Press, United States, 2000. Hardback. Condition: New. None ed.. Language: English. Brand new Book. Ever since our early ancestors first stood up on their two feet, taking on an unusual stance with a peculiar gait, natural selection has guided the process of human evolution toward the species we are today. But the evolutionary road to "Homo sapiens" was not easy; indeed, there was no road to follow. There was just a dim patch cut out by the contingencies of chance, coincidence and chaos. Could chance really have played an important role in the evolution of such a sophisticated, sentient being? It is undoubtedly so! From the source of the very genes that construct our bodies to the origin of our species, chance was not only operating - it was absolutely necessary for the evolutionary process. Likewise, biological and environmental coincidences shaped our bodies and pushed our ancestors in odd directions along the dim path, leaving us to deal with opportunities as well as hindrances. Each step led directly to another. Had any link in the evolutionary chain of events been slightly different, then our species would not be as it is today .or our ancestors may not have survived at all. Dependence on such subtle contingencies is the signature of chaos. Anthropologist Jeffrey McKee portrays a story of research on the cutting edge of both paleontology and evolutionary theory. His book delves into the excitement and frustrations of excavations at the world-renowned fossil sites of Taung and Makapansgat, two South African site that provide key evidence elucidating the initial conditions of human origins. Using a concoction of evidence ranging from fossil excavations to computer simulations McKee then lays the foundations for our scientific debates. Probing the depths of research with a variety of perspectives, the author demonstrates how the chain of human evolution was riddled with chance, coincidence and chaos. The book projects the author's personal feeling of wonder and sense of humour in order to make the new scientific revolution accessible to the general reader, while being firmly grounded with hard-hitting research so as to be of importance to the scientific community. "The Riddled Chain" then concludes with a thought-provoking assessment of the implications of the latest evolutionary research for the present and future conditions of humankind. Seller Inventory # AAC9780813527833

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Book Description Rutgers University Press, United States, 2000. Hardback. Condition: New. None ed.. Language: English. Brand new Book. Ever since our early ancestors first stood up on their two feet, taking on an unusual stance with a peculiar gait, natural selection has guided the process of human evolution toward the species we are today. But the evolutionary road to "Homo sapiens" was not easy; indeed, there was no road to follow. There was just a dim patch cut out by the contingencies of chance, coincidence and chaos. Could chance really have played an important role in the evolution of such a sophisticated, sentient being? It is undoubtedly so! From the source of the very genes that construct our bodies to the origin of our species, chance was not only operating - it was absolutely necessary for the evolutionary process. Likewise, biological and environmental coincidences shaped our bodies and pushed our ancestors in odd directions along the dim path, leaving us to deal with opportunities as well as hindrances. Each step led directly to another. Had any link in the evolutionary chain of events been slightly different, then our species would not be as it is today .or our ancestors may not have survived at all. Dependence on such subtle contingencies is the signature of chaos. Anthropologist Jeffrey McKee portrays a story of research on the cutting edge of both paleontology and evolutionary theory. His book delves into the excitement and frustrations of excavations at the world-renowned fossil sites of Taung and Makapansgat, two South African site that provide key evidence elucidating the initial conditions of human origins. Using a concoction of evidence ranging from fossil excavations to computer simulations McKee then lays the foundations for our scientific debates. Probing the depths of research with a variety of perspectives, the author demonstrates how the chain of human evolution was riddled with chance, coincidence and chaos. The book projects the author's personal feeling of wonder and sense of humour in order to make the new scientific revolution accessible to the general reader, while being firmly grounded with hard-hitting research so as to be of importance to the scientific community. "The Riddled Chain" then concludes with a thought-provoking assessment of the implications of the latest evolutionary research for the present and future conditions of humankind. Seller Inventory # AAC9780813527833

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Book Description Rutgers University Press, United States, 2000. Hardback. Condition: New. None ed.. Language: English. Brand new Book. Ever since our early ancestors first stood up on their two feet, taking on an unusual stance with a peculiar gait, natural selection has guided the process of human evolution toward the species we are today. But the evolutionary road to "Homo sapiens" was not easy; indeed, there was no road to follow. There was just a dim patch cut out by the contingencies of chance, coincidence and chaos. Could chance really have played an important role in the evolution of such a sophisticated, sentient being? It is undoubtedly so! From the source of the very genes that construct our bodies to the origin of our species, chance was not only operating - it was absolutely necessary for the evolutionary process. Likewise, biological and environmental coincidences shaped our bodies and pushed our ancestors in odd directions along the dim path, leaving us to deal with opportunities as well as hindrances. Each step led directly to another. Had any link in the evolutionary chain of events been slightly different, then our species would not be as it is today .or our ancestors may not have survived at all. Dependence on such subtle contingencies is the signature of chaos. Anthropologist Jeffrey McKee portrays a story of research on the cutting edge of both paleontology and evolutionary theory. His book delves into the excitement and frustrations of excavations at the world-renowned fossil sites of Taung and Makapansgat, two South African site that provide key evidence elucidating the initial conditions of human origins. Using a concoction of evidence ranging from fossil excavations to computer simulations McKee then lays the foundations for our scientific debates. Probing the depths of research with a variety of perspectives, the author demonstrates how the chain of human evolution was riddled with chance, coincidence and chaos. The book projects the author's personal feeling of wonder and sense of humour in order to make the new scientific revolution accessible to the general reader, while being firmly grounded with hard-hitting research so as to be of importance to the scientific community. "The Riddled Chain" then concludes with a thought-provoking assessment of the implications of the latest evolutionary research for the present and future conditions of humankind. Seller Inventory # BTE9780813527833

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Book Description Rutgers University Press. Hardcover. Condition: New. 294 pages. Dimensions: 9.3in. x 6.3in. x 0.9in.Ever since our early ancestors first stood up on their two feet, taking on an unusual stance with a peculiar gait, natural selection has guided the process of human evolution toward the species we are today. But the evolutionary road to Homo sapiens was not easy; indeed, there was no road to follow. There was just a dim patch cut out by the contingencies of chance, coincidence and chaos. Could chance really have played an important role in the evolution of such a sophisticated, sentient being It is undoubtedly so! From the source of the very genes that construct our bodies to the origin of our species, chance was not only operating - it was absolutely necessary for the evolutionary process. Likewise, biological and environmental coincidences shaped our bodies and pushed our ancestors in odd directions along the dim path, leaving us to deal with opportunities as well as hindrances. Each step led directly to another. Had any link in the evolutionary chain of events been slightly different, then our species would not be as it is today . . . or our ancestors may not have survived at all. Dependence on such subtle contingencies is the signature of chaos. Anthropologist Jeffrey McKee portrays a story of research on the cutting edge of both paleontology and evolutionary theory. His book delves into the excitement and frustrations of excavations at the world-renowned fossil sites of Taung and Makapansgat, two South African site that provide key evidence elucidating the initial conditions of human origins. Using a concoction of evidence ranging from fossil excavations to computer simulations McKee then lays the foundations for our scientific debates. Probing the depths of research with a variety of perspectives, the author demonstrates how the chain of human evolution was riddled with chance, coincidence and chaos. The book projects the authors personal feeling of wonder and sense of humour in order to make the new scientific revolution accessible to the general reader, while being firmly grounded with hard-hitting research so as to be of importance to the scientific community. The Riddled Chain then concludes with a thought-provoking assessment of the implications of the latest evolutionary research for the present and future conditions of humankind. This item ships from multiple locations. Your book may arrive from Roseburg,OR, La Vergne,TN. Hardcover. Seller Inventory # 9780813527833

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