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The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent

The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent

Why We See So Well

Lynne A. Isbell

ISBN 9780674054042

Publication date: 08/30/2009

From the temptation of Eve to the venomous murder of the mighty Thor, the serpent appears throughout time and cultures as a figure of mischief and misery. The worldwide prominence of snakes in religion, myth, and folklore underscores our deep connection to the serpent—but why, when so few of us have firsthand experience? The surprising answer, this book suggests, lies in the singular impact of snakes on primate evolution. Predation pressure from snakes, Lynne Isbell tells us, is ultimately responsible for the superior vision and large brains of primates—and for a critical aspect of human evolution.

Drawing on extensive research, Isbell further speculates how snakes could have influenced the development of a distinctively human behavior: our ability to point for the purpose of directing attention. A social activity (no one points when alone) dependent on fast and accurate localization, pointing would have reduced deadly snake bites among our hominin ancestors. It might have also figured in later human behavior: snakes, this book eloquently argues, may well have given bipedal hominins, already equipped with a non-human primate communication system, the evolutionary nudge to point to communicate for social good, a critical step toward the evolution of language, and all that followed.


  • This book is an intellectual tour de force that would have pleased Charles Darwin. Isbell presents a well-argued case for the startling thesis that snakes have played a key role in shaping evolution of the primate brain. Her comparative perspective draws on geology, paleontology, biogeography, molecular biology, genetics, biological anthropology, nutrition, neuroscience, and psychology. An engaged, lively, and lucid writer, Isbell makes even complex arguments accessible. Her book should be of great interest to biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and anyone who wonders who we humans are.

    —Arne Öhman, Karolinska Institutet


  • Lynne A. Isbell is Professor of Anthropology and Animal Behavior at the University of California, Davis.

Book Details

  • Harvard University Press