Humanity’s Descent: The Consequences of Ecological Instability. Richard Potts. William Morrow.

Humanity's Descent: The Consequences of Ecological Instability Book Cover Humanity's Descent: The Consequences of Ecological Instability
Richard Potts
William Morrow
May 1996

As fossil discoveries stir debates about our deep past, a new way of understanding human origin is taking shape. It places human ancestors within the story of Earth’s ecology – the conditions of nature that have led to the evolution of all of the planet’s organisms. In this groundbreaking book, Rick Potts uncovers the ecology of our earliest forebears, explores their survival and extinction, and tells the drama of human evolution as it has never been told before.

Potts, internationally known for his innovative excavations of early archaeological sites, brilliantly connects our planet’s past with the environmental dilemmas we now face, showing how ancient humans responded to the forces of nature and survived long periods of dramatic habitat disturbance.

As Darwin defined the role of natural selection in evolution, so this book introduces a new process of nature – variability selection – which laid the foundation of modern human ecology, including our ability to endure, and to create, environmental crises. Our planet became cooler, drier, and less forested over several million years, but the change was neither simple nor continuous. Our ancestors emerged in an area of erratic change caused by volcanic eruptions, land uplift, and climate extremes. Human evolution was not, as widely believed, a progressive adaptation to the savanna, but a response to an uncertain environment. From the first two-legged walkers and their eventual spread from Africa, to the origin of symbolic speech and modern cultural diversity, Humanity’s Descent traces how humans evolved the means to cope with environmental disturbance and, ultimately, to hold the reins of survival and extinction in the modern world.

In the end, Humanity’s Descent offers a provocative statement about the present status of our species and its institutions. Potts convincingly explains why prevailing ideals of economic growth and environmental preservation are based on mistaken, short-term views of the natural world. Our future lies, as it always has, in our ability to tolerate environmental insult and to revise our relationship with nature.

“People like you and me,” Potts concludes, “will decide a course for the planet by choosing ways to interact with it. We cannot avoid being involved in the collective result, which, in a primal sense, is the continuing path of human origin.”

Rick Potts is Director of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. In addition to his field expeditions to Kenya and China, he is widely known as an author and commentator. His contributions include his acclaimed book Early Hominid Activities at Olduvai and numerous scientific articles. His ideas and comments have been aired on several occasions on NPR’s All Things Considered, and he was awarded a Certificate of Honor by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for the Emmy-winning Tales of the Human Dawn on PBS. He gave the 1991 plenary speech to the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and he will give the 1996 plenary address at the North American Paleontological Convention. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.