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Hard Science
Title: The Upright Ape: A New Origin of the Species
Author: Aaron G. Filler, MD, PhD
Rating: Excellent!
Publisher: New Page Books/Career Press
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Reviewed by: John Lehman | View Bio

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  • A segment of a mutant fruit fly (only observable because of the scanning electron microscope introduced in the 1960s) casts new significance on the 2,500-year-old dispute between the approach of Plato and that of Aristotle. And, as author Aaron Filler, a noted neurosurgeon at the Institute for Spinal Disorders at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, points out, "There is no escaping the importance of subjective factors (history and philosophy) and how they have influenced the history of scientific inquiry and thought." Filler provides a detailed anatomical and developmental bases for his contention that bipedalism preceded the divergence of humans and chimps, which raises interesting questions about the recognition, interpretation and definition of the earliest possible human ancestors. New theories are dangerous. They can turn careers upside down: the theoretician is challenged to provide proof (which sometimes is incomplete); scientists who feel threatened by the new theory often throw competing evidence against it. However both believe that the truest position will win in the end because the observable evidence of nature will ultimately support it.

    For me, the historic context and struggle of ideas helped keep this very technical and often complex material intriguingó"In an ancestral ape, a critical change took place in the distribution of the position of anatomical structures from front to back of the animal (sorso-bentral patterning), affecting various structures arrayed along the main anterior-posterior (head-to-toe) course of the vertebral column and associated structures (in science-speak, the 'embryological longitudinal body axis')." This may prove hard going for the average reader, but the problem, I think, goes beyond this particular book.

    Filler discusses Goethe in a chapter wonderfully titled "Goethe's Poetry of the Spine" (in fact, I would have put Chapters 2 and 3 before Chapter 1). The genetics of Chapter 4 were beyond my graspóbut then I had a biology teacher in college who said I was the worst, most argumentative student he had ever hadóbut the next three chapters neatly snap the elements of Filler's argument into place. In any case the German writer and later Darwin and Freud were able to persuade audiences well versed in both science and philosophy. Since their time we have become compartmentalized. Scientists must convince other scientists; philosophers and spiritual thinkers address those already disposed to their orientation. But human evolution is one of those real issues (as real as a high school biology class or the Sunday sermon in church) that seems to bridge disparate specialties. So an author must be thorough and convincing to a general readership while still being rigorous enough to satisfy his or her peersóthis in the age of Paris Hilton, rather than the age of "Faust." Good luck!

    But for those willing to rise to the level of this material "The Upright Ape" is a thought provoking journey into, not only science and philosophy, but also how one thing does or does not change into something else. What are the book's conclusions: 1) That classical evolutionary thinking shows a steady adaptive progress by which animal species become improved. "Modern evolutionary thinking shows a random progress to forms that are different just because they are different, and that survive because the changes in their form just don't make much difference." and 2) We may love the familiar tableau of the magnificent human form arising from the crouching, animal ancestry of the lowly ape, but "what is emerging instead is a picture of a persistently upright bipedal line of ancestors extending in unbroken series from its origin in an ancient homeotic mutation event..."

    The chapter on Goethe quotes words that so well capture the spirit of discovery, "I am on my way, toward gloriously new discoveries; how nature, with such enormous magnificence, out of that which looks like nothing, develops the most diverse from the simplest." Whether this book is a "New Origin of the Species" as the cover boasts, only time will tell. But if the evidence presented here triggers better arguments that move us closer to the truth, what more can any book do? Take that, shortsighted university biology teachers!

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