Home: How Habitat Made Us Human, by John S Allen - book review: A scientific look at being human that fails to enlighten

Instead of delivering on the subtitle, the book is more “A Natural History of Home”

Tuesday 09 February 2016 19:58 GMT

The search for “what made us human” has recently become something of a parlour game. We've had art (Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct), sexual selection (Geoffrey Miller's The Mating Mind) and the baby sling (yes, you read that right – Timothy Taylor's The Artificial Ape). Perhaps anyone can play?

Now here comes John S Allen with Home. Before we dive into this perhaps it's worth asking the question: is it possible that what made us human was “all of the above”, but that these innovations all lay downstream from something more fundamental? When the first proto-humans evolved around two-to-three million years ago the world was fabulously rich with resources that could be exploited by a creature with behavioural and mental flexibility.

Billions of years of geological churn had produced minerals neatly sifted, ready for us to use: flint, chalk, iron ore, oil, gas etc, even a few metals in their native state, and the natural world provided tough materials: wood, leather, fibres, bone. All it needed was for a creature to break with the rigid behavioural repertoire of all the other animals for a tide of innovation to begin. Whatever it was that made us human was whatever enabled this plasticity of behaviour. As Auden put it: “Finally, there came a creature/On whom the years could model any feature”.

But Home's subtitle is misleading: it never begins to tell us “how habitat made us human” in the way that the aforecited books do. What made us human is the result of a process of gene/culture co-evolution but that is to restate the question rather than give an answer. Some aspects of that co-evolution are known, others hinted at, but you won't find much about them here. The human brain grew by a factor of three times over 2.5-3 million years: what drove that huge growth?

Instead of delivering on the subtitle, the book is more “A Natural History of Home”. I can imagine a Gaston Bachelard (The Poetics of Space) making something of that, but Allen has an itch he can't scratch properly. One chapter is literally about home improvement: “Most people seek home improvement by visiting stores such as Ikea...”

“In looking at home from an evolutionary and cognitive perspective, I have tried to get at something more universal,” he writes in the Epilogue. Evolutionary perspective? There is a chapter of standard textbook stuff on human evolution up to Homo erectus (the homes of which are somewhat lost to us), 1.8 million years ago, followed by a chapter on Neanderthals all about their burial practices. Well, a cemetery is not a home, to coin a phrase we've never needed before.

Basic Books, £19.99. Order for £17.99 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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