The Riddled Chain:

Chance, Coincidence, And Chaos

in Human evolution

By Jeffrey K. McKee


Ever since our early ancestors first stood up on their two feet, taking on an unusual stance with a peculiar gait, natural selection has guided the process of human evolution toward the species we are today. But the evolutionary road to Homo sapiens was not smooth and easy; indeed, there was no road to follow. There was just a dim path cut out by the contingencies of chance, coincidence, and chaos.

Could chance really have played an important role in the evolution of such a sophisticated sentient being? It is undoubtedly so! From the source of the very genes that construct our bodies, to the origin of our species, chance was not only operating -- it was absolutely necessary for the evolutionary process. Likewise, biological and environmental coincidences shaped our bodies and pushed our ancestors in odd directions along the dim path, leaving us to deal with opportunities as well as hindrances. Each step led directly to another had any link in the evolutionary chain of events been slightly different, then our species would not be as it is today ... or our ancestors may not have survived at all. Dependence on such subtle contingencies is the signature of chaos.

In The Riddled Chain, the far-reaching implications of chaos theory are applied directly to what Thomas Henry Huxley called "The question of questions for mankind -- the problem which underlies all others, and is more deeply interesting than any other -- the ascertainment of the place which Man occupies in nature and of his relations to the universe of things." New ideas from disparate sciences are woven together to provide a startling answer to the big question.

Anthropologist Jeff McKee portrays a story of research on the cutting edge of both paleontology and evolutionary theory. His book delves into the excitement and frustrations of excavations at the world-renowned fossil sites of Taung and Makapansgat, two South African sites which provide key evidence elucidating the initial conditions of human origins. Using a concoction of evidence ranging from fossil excavations to computer simulations, McKee then lays the foundations for our current scientific debates. Probing the depths of research with a variety of perspectives, the author demonstrates how the chain of human evolution was riddled with chance, coincidence, and chaos.

The book projects the author’s personal feeling of wonder and sense of humor in order to make the new scientific revolution accessible to the general reader, while being firmly grounded with hard-hitting research so as to be of importance to the scientific community. The Riddled Chain then concludes with a thought-provoking assessment of the implications of the latest evolutionary research for the present and future conditions of humankind.

                                         (web illustrations by Timothy B. McKee)

Praise for The Riddled Chain, by Jeffrey K. McKee

(Rutgers University Press, 2000)

"McKee’s wonderfully rich and provocative text, told with style and winning flashes of humor, is a refreshing entry into the always contentious and endlessly fascinating story of human origins."

Kirkus Associates

"McKee wonders, as everyone must, how we got here. ‘How could an aimless evolutionary process, patching together random biological novelties and oddities throught trial and error, lead to Homo sapiens?’ ... McKee proposes a bottom-up model of evolution rather than the top-down model favored by many evolutionists. ... McKee has a way with examples and analogies that greatly enhances his argument."

Scientific American

"If anyone can sell the principle of evolutionary autocatalysis as the driving force of human evolution then it should be McKee. He writes well, using nonspecialist language sprinkled with well-chosen and apt metaphors that make arcane arguments accessible. … the intellectual equivalent of a cold shower."

Prof. Bernard Wood, New Scientist

"McKee cleverly draws the reader into theoretical debates about human evolution through personal stories of his field work in South Africa … McKee believes that he’s on to something here that could very well start yet another evolution war."

Prof. Michael Shermer, The Washington Post

"The Riddled Chain is a thought-provoking work, written in a prose that is authoritative, compelling, and charming."

Prof. Glenn C. Conroy, Washington University

"McKee has written an important and provocative book on human evolution that provides a counterweight to fashionable searches for external driving forces."

Prof. Alan Walker, Pennsylvania State University

"As this book usefully demonstrates, chaos theory can give us clues about our own evolution … His clear, informal, and anecdotal writing style makes sometimes complex ideas interesting and understandable."

Library Journal

"Readers interested in learning more about how scientists study, think about, and try to understand human evolution will find McKee an engaging guide. His writing is cogent and clear …a rewarding book."

John R. Alden, The Philadelphia Inquirer


The Riddled Chain is available at most on-line bookstores.

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