Book Review: The Origin of Humankind, by Richard Leaky

1994, 171 pp. Perseus Book Group

Review by Wm Olkowski, PhD

When I saw this book among the list produced by E.R. Hamilton Book Sellers I knew it would be good because I knew the name of Leakey as being a family of archeologists who had made pioneering discoveries of fossil humans.  This small, inexpensive book (ca. $5.) is special because it explains how archeologists think about their discoveries of skeletons, tools, drawings, etc. and what they tell us about the history and development of Homo sapiens.  Leaky has the great ability to tell the story without losing the interest of the reader, even though the subject is complex.  His enthusiasm for his subject is contagious.

One of the great things about this book is opposite the credit page – a diagram that synopsizes the main events in the origin story starting in Africa at 10 to 5 million years back.  I wish I had this drawing when reading the books by Fagan about early human archeology, e.g., Cro-Magnon).  Between 10-5 mya was a time when we became bipedal.  Bipedalism was a response to the change in Africa that went from almost total forest to savannah.  Bipedalism means a greater home range as a two-legged animal can run faster and longer than a four-legged animal.  This was a necessary step in leaving Africa.

The synoptic diagram covers up to the current time, which is labeled as the “technological revolution”.  The evidence as we progress through the different species and toolmakers is presented to the reader for examination.  The story starts as what maybe the earliest known fossil primate/Homo sp?, called Australopithecus afarensis, on the line to H. sapiens.  (But see the book “The Link”, which carries the story much further back to about 70 million years ago.)  Leakey’s story is about how we became who we are, particularly as toolmakers, artists and organisms that speak, and evolve social civilizations.

Even though this book is over 15 years old, Leakey’s presentation brings a clarity because it has maps, diagrams of skulls and skeletons for comparisons, family trees, photographs of tools, special bones with the signs of butchery, but above all, his clarity of thought.  He is presenting scientific ideas the reader can judge for himself or herself, based on the evidence, which Leaky presents.

What seems so odd is that so many people today do not know this story and seem to work hard to avoid learning about where they came from.  Will further evolution of humans lead to a variety of humans who do not think rationally; and then a new species of irrationals? Or has that always been the case?  But as more and more humans learn more and more will this mounting irrationality finally stop?  Maybe it’s not just the amount of learning but the type of learning.  Let’s hope the latter is the case as we are now in a race to catch up to an environment we have created that threatens our existence.  Big changes ahead no matter what future awaits.

Book Review: Good Calories, Bad Calories, by Gary Taubes, 2007

Review by Wm Olkowski, Phd

This read is hailed as one of the most important public health books of the last 50 or so years.  Taubes took seven years to research the scientific literature back into the 1800’s, tracing the idea of what in the diet causes weight gain and cardiovascular problems.  The low fat hypothesis is dead in the water, as his work shows, but it may take another 30 years before the practicing physicians focus their attention on the carbohydrate question.  Nowadays if your cholesterol is over some magic number you get put on statins.  Certainly both Helga and I were so treated without notice to us in the ER and post op.  Note that it’s the release of glucose into the blood stream in excess of what is needed by the brain (ca. 100 calories per day) that puts fat on the body and prevents the use of the already stored fat.  Sure you can try burning the blood glucose off, over that needed by the brain, but it will take marathon-like activities.  Our bodies are very efficient and certainly know how to store energy as fat, since that was one of the most important survival mechanisms as we evolved and survived long-term droughts and ice ages.

According to Taubes, there is no scientific justification for the recommendation to advise people to eat a low-fat diet. This idea he traces to the presidential election and campaign headed by McGovern.  At that time a group of researchers formed to advise the candidate on public health policy, and they came up with the low-fat campaign.  This idea was being pushed by various researchers before definitive studies were done.  Almost the opposite should be the recommendation.   In fact, it may be better to focus on fat as the main energy source, with proteins next, and carbohydrates last, in declining priority for energy.  There are also good fats and bad fats, balanced proteins, good and bad carbos, depending upon your stage of progression to diabetes.  But high fructose corn syrup (principally in juices), and excessive use of white table sugar are really poisons.  There is just nothing good about those sugars except their taste. The empty carbos are simply bad for you, as they over stimulate the pancreas, producing, after years or decades, adult onset diabetes.  This disease is also called Syndrome X.

If you want the real science about fat and sugar in the diet read this book, but the next one will knock your socks off.


My Life #2.

By Bill Olkowski, PhD

The Word “If”

If maybe the most important word in the English language.  Maybe one should add the additional word, “what” either to the front.

This is one story about IF back in the time of Vietnam.  The movie “The Blue State” stimulated this quick note.  See it if you care.  It’s illuminating given the current wars and political climate.

My Uncle Eddie

My uncle Eddie Mosyznski, (one of my mother’s brothers) served as a private pharmacist in the Korean War, which was back in 1948 or thereabouts.  His commented to me that “ If” you have to go into the military, go as an officer.  Had I known then what I know now – wow – I would avoid the experience.

Its not that I would not fight the Russians, or whoever was really threatening our democracy, but I do not feel our military is the right solution to all our conflicts.  For example, Vietnam was a disaster for all concerned.  The current war is a similar situation, and I even feel threatened by our political climate.  Religion is playing too big a role in politics and I feel organized religion to be a relic – but that’s another story.

Eddie said he served as a pharmacist, as a private with private pay and he worked alongside of other pharmacists who were officers and were paid more.  On leaving after his tour he refused to every wear kaki or any near brown colored clothing.  I wrote him regularly during his tour – his mail number was 501360.

Jumping for Joy

He told me many stories and I loved him for his exuberance.  It reminds me of when we had new fawns on the farm.  The babies would just jump for joy – maybe because they were finally out of their mothers, who would seem to tolerate the running and spontaneous jumping.  One year we had about 15 new fawns and the whole group would just up and jump and run this way and that.  The mothers seemed to be just nearby watching and eating, sort of bored-like.

Eddie, my pharmacist uncle, was the only person I ever met who would dance and sing as we walked.  When much younger in my birth town, Jersey City, I remember being on a bus when he burst out in a nationalistic polish song.  I have never experienced this again.  I was at the time just a boy and his stories were great.  One time Eddie acted out the whole movie of the Three Musketeers with sword thrusts and hiding behind curtains, and court intrigues.  It filled me up with adventure and fun.  When he came back from Korea he took me to a movie in Jersey City on a trip to get back his ring from an old girl friend who gave him up when he was in the army.


So back in college I had a choice to choose an ROTC program that would lead to a commission as an army officer.  The military then was looking for officers as they always do.  The ROTC (reserve officer training corps) was a mandatory program at my college (U of De) for all males for the first two years.  Some experiences are not worth having and in retrospect, even though all learning is good. I would recommend cessation of this mandatory aspect, but I might as well whistle in the dark.

OK, if you want to risk your life and be subjected to humiliation and personal loss of freedom, but to make it mandatory is unjust.  I wanted a college education and since I had a full ride thru college by way of a football scholarship I did not really know what this program was like, nor did I know that having a commission as an officer was a lifetime commitment.  Army recruitment was then and probably still is a maze of lies.  Back then, of course, we were fighting the Russians, or were we?

So I made a mistake.  Even now I get memories from the training.  I have a friend who went to Vietnam.  He told me two things I will never forget.  He told me of how in going out on a patrol they saw a jeep load of guys sitting by the side of the road.   When they came back the jeep had been hit by a friendly round.  Now in training they never mention “friendly rounds falling short”.  You can imagine why.

Another episode if you can tolerate it.  He also told me that one time he was carrying six canteens.  I didn’t understand at first.  He explained that whenever a squad member was damaged or killed he would go for their canteen.  One of the great things his father sent him while in Vietnam was socks as he just wore them until they rotted.  I am sure glad I never went near Vietnam or any gunfire.  I even feel threatened when having to face police officers that carry guns.  Regular police officers in Britain don’t carry guns and their society appears not to suffer from the restriction.  We, in the US, still carry the old Wild West around like a monkey on our backs.


Now with that preamble one episode is worth telling from my ROTC training.  We had to go to training camp for 2 weeks during Easter vacation in my junior year, which was a difficult time for me as my back was hurting badly – another story some day but as a health comment not really a ramble like now.

I remember carrying a machine gun (a BAR, Browning Automatic Rifle) for a few miles, one of those old things, which was very heavy, really a clunker compared to current war rifles or machine guns.  Afterward putting it on the ground my shoulders were numb for hours.  In those days the march was a training exercise to break us into the two-week field experience.  They did not allow us to drink water during the march.  Later we were allowed water.  Some of my fellow trainees fainted along the way.  I was happy to have my football experiences with exercise and felt superior to many who were exhausted.

The Attack

The highlight of the whole program was an attack on a hillside fortification.  An old sergeant was handling one of the lecture/exercises.  He pointed out a small hillside about 300 yards away and told us our squad was going to sneak along a small depression and attack the hill from the left flank.  The idea was a machine gun was to continuously fire across the enemy hill encampment and move in front of us as we charged across the encampment.  During this maneuver the artillery barrage would move back so that anybody who jumped from the holes would have to go thru the barrage.

Then he told us of one of his experiences from the Korean War.  It was a similar hillside with a dug-in group of enemy (probably North Koreans or Chinese).  He told us of how he and another guy crept up to the objective carrying a bag of grenades.  As the machine gun continued to keep the enemy in their holes, they went from hole to hole dropping in grenades until they killed them all.

Those poor bastards in the holes probably did not know what hit them.  Maybe that’s the way to die, but given a choice I’d rather die in my bed with some real friends, not just war buddies.

The last exercise I describe here occurred at the last days.  I was chosen as the company commander during an attack against a Texas training regiment who seemed to tolerate us trainees with some disgust.  The privates in the group were particularly disdainful, as we all were inexperienced and rather poor soldiers – mostly poor physical specimens compared to them.  Those Texas boys seemed natural soldiers – by the way – maybe left over from the Civil War Schools.

So for a few minutes I and another guy who was my Executive Officer were briefed on the upcoming attack.  We had so little time to think about what they told us – which seemed realistic and stupid.  So here is what they told us.  There would be a small nuclear bomb attack at first and we were to follow up and kill anybody left.  We would of course, go thru the radiation zone (something I learned later was very risky).  Of course it was a simulation.  They gave us the names we would use over the radio and designated a radio operator to follow me everywhere.  My executive officer would lead a squad of tankers and small troop carriers (with 50 caliber machine guns).

The executive officer would be the right flank.  They would disembark when I told them to and move up to the emplacement we would win, joining our squads.  Tanks with portable machine guns are awesome things to know about and see.  We all had code names so we could decipher the radio traffic.  My code name was moonstone and codenames were given to all squad leaders all with radio operators.

The first thing that would happen was a small limited nuclear bomb on the objective and our three squads were to sweep up any remaining enemy.  Ha, Ha!!  I guess that experienced soldiers know what I mean by that exclamation.  Nothing is that simple, especially with any group of people and certainly not while in the army or in attacking an enemy.

A Small Scale Nuclear Bomb

So here’s what happened.  OK we saw the bomb go off and I told two squad leaders to follow up holding one squad back as a reserve.  All went according to plan and we got the objective.  My job then was to make sure our solders were probably dug in for the night.  Night came and much to my surprise some Cornel came along with a blistering lecture on how many infiltrators had made it through our lines.  I went to look and found a 30-meter gaps between 2 squads.  I had neglected to cover the entire perimeter from exhaustion.  So the command passed to another trainee.

So what do I make of these experiences?  Let me reiterate that it’s best to skip these experiences IF you can.  Military operations are error prone and when using guns, mortars, tanks and artillery there are errors all around just waiting to happen.  It’s complex, dangerous and really in the last view stupid – a really bizarre human activity of no worth, unless, of course my house or family or friends are being threatened.  That’s another story, which needs no further comment.

Back to the word IF

Here is another example of IF in a positive vein.  This occurred in my graduate days at UC, Berkeley.   I took a summer class (free) with a large (1000 or so students) on learning to write computer programs with Fortran, an early programming language.  The teacher says to first make a diagram of what you want to happen in the program.  This was my first view of a graphical language.  To this day this learning experience was one of the greatest mental skills I have ever learned.  This program was build upon the following statement structure:

IF (another statement that can be answered true or false) Then (another statement but now something to do).  The first statement could be something like x = 10.  The second statement could be, for example, add 1 to the variable x, or jump to another part of the program).  With a series of such statements one could build logical branching trees of any depth and complexity.  Got that?  It’s from the early days of computing science.

I say this was a great learning experience because I used this sort of graphical language over the last few decades with my pest control work.  See the website for examples, or some of my published work.

Enough for now.