Beard: The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey
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Chris Beard, The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey : Unearthing the Origins of Monkeys, Apes, and Humans ; illustrations by Mark Klingler. Berkeley : University of California Press, 2004. xv + 348 pages, 16 pages of plates; illustrations and maps; with bibliographical references, and index.
This book is an interesting mix of paleontological history, travelogue, and serious science. Throughout the book the author describes his discoveries and how they shed light on the history of primates and especially, the history of anthropoids, which are monkeys and apes. Interwoven throughout he describes the various competing hypotheses concerning the anthropoid family tree and how his discoveries have helped shed light on this topic.
He has taken a somewhat historical approach by frequently discussing the historical aspects of the different hypotheses and by setting up the book as a history of his research and discoveries from his first research in the U.S. to his more current research in China. At the end of the book, he provides us with his hypothesis for the primate "family tree", or more specifically, a phylogeny of the order primates. Like most paleoanthropologists, he is opinionated, but not annoyingly so. He feels strongly that anthropoids originated in Asia rather than Africa. He provides his reasoning for this, but since he readily admits that the oldest anthropoid by far was found in Africa, I for one was not totally convinced by his argument.
I learned a great deal and mostly enjoyed this book. As anyone who knows me will attest, I am a nerd to the nth degree, but the author's in-depth discussions of the minutiae of tooth morphology that separate the different primate groups and that set anthropoids apart from prosimians were more than I could bear at times. For serious paleontologists, I think this material probably would be essential. But for people with a casual desire to know a little bit more about the history of primates and little bit about how paleontology is done might be turned off by this.
I'd love to say more, but the dog needs to be let out.
-- Notes by RTS