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Book Review: Making Faces

By (January 12, 2017) No Comment

Making Faces: The Evolutionary Origins of the Human Face

by Adam S. Wilkins

The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017

There’s a charming wonkiness that runs throughout Making Faces: The Evolutionary Origins of the Human Face, a pointed penchant for obscurity that prompts author Adam Wilkins to tell readers that his book can be viewed as a “tardy sequel” to William K. Gregory’s Our Face from Fish to Man … which came out in 1929. This is a thorough study of what Wilkins rightfully characterizes as the information display-center of the human body, the face – and it’s perhaps an inadvertent comment on the state of popular studies of paleontological morphology that Wilkins can see his own book as the follow-up to something written a century ago.

To a degree that will perhaps surprise readers but likewise leave them stumped for objections, Wilkins’ account makes a strong implicit case that humans are their faces, that the evolution of the distinctive human facial features – large, mobile eyes with ample whites surrounding the pupils, small, flat noses with unpronounced nostrils, massive bare foreheads – provided key interpretive tools that facilitated the evolution of the linguistic and cognitive traits that enabled modern humans to become masters of the planet. That these traits are neotonized features, frozen in the likeness of childhood throughout the individual’s life, is starkly illustrated by a drawing (the drawings throughout are by Sarah Kennedy) toward the end of the book, showing the enormous difference between a juvenile chimpanzee face and an adult one; the juvenile not only looks more expressive and less threatening but also much more human. A provocative idea floated by the book is that humans essentially are primates who learned to retain their neotony – basically to domesticate themselves. By the time Homo sapiens spread out of Africa roughly 60,000 years ago, this process had already resulted in the paramount importance of the face in human society – an importance, Wilkins points out, that’s all-pervasive:

An individual’s face matters to its possessor, as a synecdoche for oneself: the importance we attach to presenting our “best face” to the world is closely connected to the feeling that our face represents who we are as individuals. Such facial self-consciousness is probably more extensive today than at most earlier times in human history; but it is a feature of all societies in which the concept of the individual exists and where reflecting surfaces exist, permitting a self-identification with one’s face.

Making Faces is a bit padded, but strictly out of necessity: in the book’s predominantly American marketplace, even fairly literate general readers will require every syllable of the book’s instructions in paleontology, anthropology, and evolutionary science. And luckily, Wilkins is a very effective teacher, never feeling it necessary to sacrifice complexity for clarity. He’s quite often lamentably prolix, telling his readers, for example, “It is human nature to yearn for simple single-cause explanations, but the sheer complicatedness of life guarantees that causation often involves multiple contributing factors, with the role of each in generating a particular property or outcome influenced heavily by the occurrence and magnitude of others” (even in the sentence’s long list of sins, “complicatedness” instead of “complexity” is especially taxing).

Reading these richly fascinating pages produces a pleasing kind of self-consciousness, a heightened awareness of facial twinges and stretches. We so little think of this incredibly complicated and always-shifting window to ourselves, letting us look out and letting others look in; Making Faces gives the subject the fully-layered analysis – evolutionary, physiological, cultural – that it deserves. You’ll find yourself studying the bored faces on the morning train-ride.

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