Lucy’s Legacy: A review

Lucy’s Legacy: Sex and Intelligence in Human Evolution (1999) is a book written by Alison Jolly (1937-2014) about that which the title indicates. Moreover, the book is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, amusing, detailed analysis of who we are. Which begs the question: Why isn’t it more widely read and cited? The answer is in the text.

Who is Lucy?

Lucy is the name given to fossil (skeleton) remains of a female (?) African australopithecine discovered in Ethiopia in 1976. Lucy lived 3.2 million years ago, was not four feet tall and weighted seventy pounds. (p. 357) Gorilla-like in stature, but upright walking and less hairy, somewhat like us; but with an ape-sized brain (400-500 cc).

Lucy is thought to be the beginnings of mankind. (Notwithstanding the many who think God is a master joker.) Lucy and her mates made stone axes, lived in small bands, and was likely both prey and predator. Did she think about any of that? Does that interest you? Because that is the subject of this book. In addition, the author speculates about what is next for our species. Are we headed for extinction? Having evolved into such extraordinary tool makers, killers, and thinkers; and come to a fork in the road? What will we choose?


is what separates us from the rest of the ecosystem, most would agree. However, no one seems to agree just what is consciousness? Jolly has a go at it and in fact, details what it is and just when it started to appear. Consciousness, she posits, “is a way to choose between alternative courses [of action] without actually trying them out.” (p. 285)

Jolly wonders if given our intelligence–our conscious decision making ability–will we do the right thing and cooperate globally rather than compete? Because our lives are literally in the balance. Given our ability to completely dominate the planet regardless of hazard or threat. We are in control. So far.


is an evolved survival behavior. Jolly, and other Primatologists, have observed it in other primates. We didn’t invent lying, just greatly improved upon it as a mechanism of self-maintenance to stay alive. Because we got language!

[My psych-girl calls lying “diplomacy”.]

We do what we can in our individual self-interest. Moreover, our self-interest then benefits the tribe, or group’s, chances of survival. And vice versa. The group’s success increases our chances. Thus is why and how cooperation evolved.  Concurrent with competition. Of course.

Machiavellian Intelligence

is a sub-chapter in the book (p. 206); and also a book in its own right. Before The Prince (1513) was published – lying for power was disavowed. However, to this day, most people (especially politicians and other managerial professionals) claim to be honest. Jolly says, “There are different levels of sophistication in deceit.” (p. 208) Indeed. Ask any therapist worth their salt.


Jolly jokes, but it might be true. Neurotic introverts might find the apes company more appealing than that of the yammering, extroverted human.
Gorilla as therapist

might be the reason so many women become Primatologists, jokes Jolly. (p. 166) To sit and watch gorilla-life is calming. “Life within the group is so placid … gorillas attract high-strung primate-watchers [read neurotics] because the apes serve as therapists for the humans.”

Fictional Ally McBeal arguing her case in the TV series of the same name (1998). Feminism was very much in vogue at the time of Jolly's book and this popular show. the contrast with the gorilla is striking.
Ally McBeal, high-strung, neurotic, narcissistic lawyer.

Love and Marriage

are human inventions. Or are they? The author goes into quite a lot of detail about mate selection and behavior in this book. Including the fact that different individuals within bands of apes and monkeys have different personalities. Because choosing a partner to parent with is a big deal – there are different strategies.

One is to have a fixed set of criteria, then mate with the first member of the opposite sex that meets the threshold. The second is to hold out for perfect. (See Ally McBeal. TV show 1998-2002.) This is risky. You might never connect. However, if you find perfect – it can have a big payoff. Because a “ten” will likely be extremely beneficial to his or her offspring, assuring one’s children have success, too.

Just like humans.


are expensive. They have always been. The care of them is costly in terms of time, energy, and currency. Food was the first currency and sharing it could be deemed the first transaction. Or social contract. ‘I will share with you, my child, my food, energy, and time for a return/payoff/reward later.’ In other words – delayed gratification.

Jolly has a sub-chapter titled: Are Babies Human? (p. 322) This is a fascinating question. They aren’t conscious in the way Jolly defines it. They can be awake but don’t think, plan, or decide. Babies have two ways of getting their needs met: screaming, or cooing, smiling, and cuddling. The former by way of negative reinforcement. You tend to them to stop the annoyance, much like an alarm clock. The latter by being cute and loving, i.e. positive reinforcement. Much like a kitten’s purring. Rewarded behavior will be repeated. That’s operant conditioning.

Today, children are more expensive than ever and there’s no guarantee of any future payoff. It’s no wonder many people are choosing not to procreate.


works. Because it induces reciprocal altruism and extends cooperation beyond just the family. However, it also has the effect of promoting warfare and casting those of another tribe as less-than. Unworthy of life even. Jolly warns, “We may never manage to act as one species (cooperate on a global scale) in the face of evolved tribalism.” (p. 418)

Human Nature

is the focus of much of this book. The author contends that we have evolved some trouble-producing traits: Greed, Surplus, Status, and Hubris. (p.402) We are at a crossroads again. Or fork in the road. Jolly saw this at the turn of the millennium. We are twenty-four years past since she published (Harvard University Press); and I’ll contend – things aren’t looking good. Because of human nature.


and their money are also a focus. Of course there is no equivalent in our pre-history. Certainly not in the ape world.

Some numbers: In 1998 there were only 225 billionaires world wide. (p. 425) Today there are 3,311. (According to google.) That’s an increase of fifteen fold. At the same time, the world’s population has only increased by one third, from six to eight billion. That implies that the global economic system is working. Yes? Super wealth is more accessible. For the human species, there are many similar statistics that indicate things, overall, are getting better.

In conclusion

Alison Jolly was hopeful. Because at the time she wrote the book she thought that the trend towards more woman in positions of authority and power, coupled with advances in technology, specifically the internet, would allow us to take the right fork. That fork being the road leading to a connected global community that cooperated on major threats and issues. This would lead to the human species thriving.

I think Jolly was both right, and wrong. Because we can now see what a connected global community looks like. Furthermore, we can see what increases in personal wealth has led to. In short, human nature is such a powerful determinate that Lying, Greed, Surplus, Status, Hubris and Tribalism rule. The evidence is the recent global response to the COVID pandemic, the US 2020 and 2022 elections, the Twitter Files, and the war in Ukraine.

Self-interest and distinct tribal interest trumped any sense of altruistic cooperation.

On the other hand, the human species is in no danger of extinction. No matter pandemics, corrupt elections, or wars – there will be enough survivors to carry the species forward. As always, however, there will be winners and losers.

This is a great read. However sometimes the detail on monkey and ape behavior can be tedious. In addition, Jolly’s final analysis was not wholly correct. So, four stars.

3 thoughts on “Lucy’s Legacy: A review

  1. Another way to think about this question is: Is there such a thing as intelligent sex? Humans and indeed all sexual reproducing creatures have mating strategies. But to what degree is human sexual behavior intelligent? Or conscious? We like to think/believe it is – that we are making conscious, intelligent (smart) decisions when we engage in sexual behavior. Then again, in the TV series Ally McBeal the male sexual organ is referred to as the “dumb stick”. Because of men’s tendency to make decisions based on their sexual gratification / satisfaction.
    Certainly women appear to be more discriminating when it comes to sex (the act). Women choose and men compete. I’m speaking here in general terms. Of course there is individual variance.
    Back to the question of the future of humankind given we have now reached the point of a connected global community and can examine its effect on mating behaviors. It appears that this CGC favors a person who is single, childless, and an insomniac. Because the marketplace of ideas and information is open 24/7. The advantage goes to one who never sleeps, but is always on the net gathering information, sorting through it, and accumulating followers.
    Followers equates to influence and income. And influence and money is what drives behavior because it assures one’s safety, security, status, and yes – sex. The “tribe” is no longer necessary.
    Take Elon Musk, reportedly the world’s richest man. He just spent $44 billion dollars to become the most followed (popular) man in the world. Surpassing Donald Trump who was banned from the CGC by other super wealthy influencers / controllers. (so Trump started his own platform of influence – Truth Social.) Money gives men access to beautiful women. Who don’t seem to be able to resist the money, power, safety, and security – the lifestyle money can provide.
    Musk didn’t spend a fortune to make the world a better place – to uplift his fellow humans. Neither is Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates or Larry Ellison. Despite what they may tell you their motives are.
    Bottom line is: Jolly was wrong. Technology and women in power will not make for a better world. The world, the universe, evolution doesn’t care. and as she notes “Gaia” is a myth. (p. 17, 418, 434)
    The book ends with, “Gaia is not our mother. She should be our daughter.”
    [Morning rant over.]

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