Human Paleobiology by Robert Eckhardt addresses the conundrum affecting the study of human evolution: as more data become available, the less clear becomes our understanding of mankind?s past. Dr. Eckhardt skillfully points out that this needn?t be the case if paleobiologists grasp certain fundamental concepts. These include, among others, an understanding of intra-population variability, the impact of small progressive changes on the overall rate of change in a character, and the difference between a population?s phenotypic profile and it?s genotypic structure. Eckhardt meticulously demonstrates how taking these factors into account makes the fossil record less puzzling, particularly as new data are obtained. One cannot help but be impressed by Eckhardt?s breadth and depth of knowledge.
Although disdaining colorful theories, Eckhardt?s writing style is certainly not drab. Drawing on examples from areas as diverse as the stock market to the humor of James Thurber, Human Paleobiology makes for a particularly good read. Which is not to say that it is an easy read. Scientists like myself who are outside the field of evolutionary biology may find the sections on primates as well as the inventory of the fossil record a bit protracted. Additionally, the complexity of the material covered cries out for the inclusion of a glossary.
Some readers may consider Eckhardt too contentious. Personally I enjoyed the author?s pugilistic precision in KO?ing fallacious nostrums. While Eckhardt doesn?t pull any punches his rational and equitable arguments are always blows above the belt. Personally I can?t wait until the nascent fields of genomics and bioinformatics start to generate copious amounts of information, requiring a second edition of Human Paleobiology. When that occurs no doubt Eckhardt will once again come out swinging.
Human Paleobiology is indeed evolutionary (pun intended) in that it represents a progression from prosaic thinking to scientific inquiry in the study of Man?s past. Above all Eckhardt demands that one thinks rather than emotes.