In order to enjoy The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean M. Auel, I had to set aside my significant skepticism of the novel’s premises. The story takes place during the time of the ice age (mammoths and human “prehistory”) and revolves around a young girl, Ayla, who is orphaned during an earthquake and adopted by the Clan people. These people are described as being a different “race”, a different branch of “mankind”, that had evolved separately from Ayla’s branch. Perhaps Auel’s intention was to evoke Neanderthal’s; I’m not sure. In any case, the pseudo-scientific explanations for the characteristics of this race are most unconvincing. For example:
In them, the unconscious knowledge of ancestral behavior called instinct had evolved. Stored in the back of their large brains were not just their own memories, but the memories of their forebears. They could recall knowledge learned by their ancestors and, under special circumstances, they could go a step beyond. They could recall their racial memory, their own evolution. And when they reached back far enough, they could merge that memory that was identical for all and join their minds, telepathically.
and “Stored in her brain at birth was the knowledge acquired by her ancestors.” This idea of memories being passed on is an unconvincing science-fiction idea (similar to the ideas of the pre-Darwin Lamarck), with no basis in how evolution has been understood since Darwin. Perhaps if the book were considered science fiction, I could more easily go along with the idea, but in a novel that is supposed to be an accurate depiction of the ice age setting (according to the back, the author is “praised for her meticulous research and vivid depictions of setting and era”), I cannot help but be quite skeptical.
The characters and the plot are quite engaging, and thus overall I did enjoy the book in spite of my skepticism. However, I felt that not only was the made-up science about memories unconvincing, but it was unnecessary. The story could have been just as compelling if the Clan simply had different customs and language than the girl’s people, or if they were simply less evolved in some ways.
I admit that in spite of my mostly negative review, the ending left me wondering what would happen next, and thus I plan to read the sequel.