Tuesday 15th March 2016
One of the biggest mysteries on Amazon isn’t a book. It’s why some good books are almost completely ignored. I found another example. This time, two non-fiction titles by author Danny Vendramini. In each book, the author has put forward a sensational premise about a (literally) world-changing subject and… crickets. With ideas so controversial he’s been denounced as a new Erich von Daniken, I’d expect to see hundreds of reviews, not twenty-seven and zero respectively. Yes, ZERO reviews of a book that proposes a hidden evolutionary process. What the heck?
Them and Us: How Neanderthal predation created modern humans offers a fresh take on why Neanderthals, our big-brained fellow hominids, failed to make it through the stone age. Predation isn’t a keyword I’ve found myself typing, and I suspect the author’s attempt to appeal to the scientific community has been his undoing. More on that later, but the book is an easy read, so maybe a more emotive title would have changed its fortunes with the masses. A title like this, perhaps:
The Neanderthal Genocide: How our ancestors had to wipe out a race to become human
Them and Us hypothesises a pre-historic genocide that took 20,000 years to play out. The author’s theory is enthralling: the Neanderthals preyed upon and generally outcompeted our ancestors almost to the point of extinction, forcing them to up their game, to evolve into a race of warlike Neanderthal-haters, hominid killers who then swept the globe, eliminating not just the Neanderthals, but every other — to that point, successful — human variant.
Is this plausible? As the author admits, he’s had to speculate. But what I loved was that it’s logical, evidenced speculation and he doesn’t just explain the Neanderthal’s disappearance, but shows how his theory fits dozens of other curious details. He also suggests Neanderthals may have been a whole lot… scarier looking (and hairier looking) than our reconstructions, and that’s a lot of fun. I’m in no position to verify the claims, but I did find the premise compelling. He presents a believable, frighteningly human reason why all the other human species just disappear from the fossil record.
This is an intriguing and well-written book, and any idea that appears to fit so many observations is an idea worth listening to. As it happens, the author has a bigger theory to offer, and in fact he explains that the Neanderthal story was almost just a sideline, a specific application of the theory. That bigger theory is equally fascinating.
If you’ve ever watched wildlife documentaries, you’ll have seen some jaw dropping adaptations — like the wasp that can detect and target butterfly larvae hiding in a colony of ants. Like the author, I believe in natural selection, but I’m completely on-board when he questions the ability of purely random mutation to happen upon a symbiosis as complex as this. And once it emerges — when the first wasp successfully performs the stunt — how does that behaviour pass to the next generation? Because butterflies and wasps don’t teach their offspring, yet clearly these weird behaviours do pass to subsequent generations. We talk about instinct but where and how is that encoded, exactly? Amazingly, our scientists don’t really have an explanation how behaviour is inherited. They know which part of the DNA creates the spider but not what gives it an ability to avoid predators and build webs. Or what stops a newborn crawling off the edge of a cliff.
That’s what Danny Vendramini’s bigger theory is all about. A theory that layers on top of natural selection, a theory he also applies to explain some other pre-historic head-scratchers like the Cambrian Explosion — the sudden jump five hundred million years ago from slime to sophisticated multi-cellular organisms that’s flummoxed evolutionary biologists from Darwin to Dawkins. To fill that gap, the author has proposed “teem theory” — the theory that evolution itself evolved from purely random mutation to something orders of magnitude more efficient, based on emotions.
Teem theory is the subject of the authors’ latest book, The Second Evolution: The secret role of emotion in evolution, a book that languishes on Amazon at position 1 million in the charts with not a single review. Rather like his first book, it looks as though this may not be a bestseller. Why?
Could it be another case of—
Them and Us?
To the scientific community, Mr Vendramini is one of “them” — an outsider. He’s not a geneticist, but a keen amateur who’s been struck by an insight, then looked for evidence that backs up his theory — and found plenty. An internet search for his name pulls back an array of critical comments from people who didn’t bother to read his book before rubbishing his efforts — know-it-alls who read a summary on his website or watched a YouTube video. Their assessment: as a hobbyist, this guy has no right to come up with theories.
Well, as a computer scientist, I’m grateful to the hobbyists who pushed forward the state of the art in my field. If you love your smartphone and all those websites, you should be too. Scientists learn method. Scientific method evolves. And many scientists are learning new techniques, doing just what the author has done — using intuition and the power of the internet to look for fresh patterns in previous scientific research.
Whether Danny Vendramini’s ideas prove to be right or wrong, they’re fascinating. They deserve some air time, and some scientific scrutiny, which — if you read the books — is also what the author wants. Whether it’s brilliant or bogus, I loved what these books did: opened my eyes to just how little we still know and how important it is to question received wisdom. While some of our visionaries have been scientists, most scientists are not visionaries. We need people who are brave enough to think differently. Otherwise we’d all be squatting by the fire, gnawing at a hunk of raw meat and hoping the rain god will stop crying soon, now we’ve sacrificed the weedy one who kept scratching shapes in the rocks.
If you think a non-scientist is allowed to have some ideas, I highly recommend picking up these books. I doubt you’d come away disappointed.
A book with zero reviews suggests that Danny Vendramini is an honest author, not a fake or a fraud trying to game the system and shock his way to fame. Amazon reviews, or lack of them, is a measure of attention, not merit. But they are key to survival — the book’s, the author’s and diversity itself — so if, like me, you read and enjoy his speculations, leave a review.
I bought Them and Us: How Neanderthal predation created modern humans on Amazon UK, and it’s also on Amazon.com.
I bought The Second Evolution: The secret role of emotion in evolution on Amazon UK, and it’s also on Amazon.com.
Those wasps and butterflies are on YouTube here