Bones of Contention?
The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest
Ancestors. Ann Gibbons. xxvi + 306 pp. Doubleday, 2006. $26.
Ever since a 1924 revelation first pointed to Africa as the cradle
of humankind, a slow but steady stream of fossil discoveries has
brought a general view of human evolution into focus. The pace has
accelerated in the past 15 years, rapidly yielding an intriguing yet
bewildering array of fossils of early ancestors of Homo
sapiens. These new finds push back the base of our unique line,
and that of our not-so-distant cousins, to possibly 6 or more
million years ago. This time period is tantalizingly close to
what most genetic models predict for the divergence of
lineages that ultimately evolved into humans and chimpanzees.
Finding a representative of the species that took the first
step—on two legs—toward becoming human is indeed one of
the key pursuits of paleoanthropology.
Much of the action has taken place in East Africa, along with a
surprising and scientifically challenging set of discoveries in
Chad. These recent finds of our earliest ancestral remains comprise
the focus of Ann Gibbons's The First Human. Despite this
choice of title, the fossils discussed represent species that are
far from what one would ordinarily call "human," as the
author acknowledges. Indeed, she quotes Berkeley paleoanthropologist
Tim White's wry comment about a species that many regard as one of
our distant ancestors, fossils of which his team discovered in
Ethiopia: "You wouldn't invite Ardipithecus ramidus to
dinner." The boundaries of the definition of "human,"
let alone recognition of the "first human," are a
subjective matter. Gibbons is able to distinguish clearly between
subjectivity and scientific rigor, and therein lies a good part of
Gibbons is a talented science writerwho has reliably synthesized the
morass of discoveries and details for news pieces in
Science magazine, elucidating the extension of our past
into uncharted territory. She is uniquely positioned to write this
book and is exceptionally wellinformed—which is what makes the
final product somewhat disappointing. Her intimacy with the subject
matter and firsthand experience with the players do not consistently
translate into a gripping story. In her patchwork chronicle of
historical and recent events, Gibbons doesn't catch her stride until
near the end of the third chapter, after which the pace occasionally
falters, being bogged down with too much irrelevant detail. She
lacks the flair for folding in the dramatic with emerging scientific
insights that is found among science writers such as Pat Shipman
(for example, in The Man Who Found the Missing Link,
published in 2001). One also longs for the historical sense of such
academic authors as Tom Gundling (First in Line, 2005).
Nevertheless, the stories are interesting in and of themselves, and
Gibbons is one of the few to have access to a large number of
tidbits that otherwise would be lost to posterity. One must be a
careful reader, however. The book is lightly peppered with minor and
nuanced, but irritating, inaccuracies. For example, in her
recounting of Raymond Dart's 1924 discovery of the Taung
child—the type specimen of Australopithecus africanus
and the first fossil evidence of human origins in Africa—she
states that Dart "never went to see where in a South African
limeworks the Taung baby skull was found." It is true that the
Taung skull was shipped to Dart and that he didn't goto
Taung—until 1947, when he joined the University of California,
Berkeley, expedition to the site. That belated visit could have been
parlayed into a more accurate and thought-provoking story.
The jacket cover of The First Human promises "intense
rivalries" in the "highly competitive world of fossil
hunting." Although I can't blame Gibbons, who may not have had
any influence on what was said here, this description brings on my
heaviest sigh. At a time when evolutionary theory is under siege by
antiscience proponents, such as the supporters of intelligent
design, we don't need to provide them with ammunition by
highlighting a handful of quirky squabbles on the sidelines of an
otherwise respectable science.
All disciplines have their characters and contentions, butit is true
that there have been some particularly emotional disputes in
paleoanthropology. To be sure, there is the
ever-present competition for grants and recognition. But beyond
that, there is certainly something deeply personal about picking out
one's great-grandparents from scant and vague snapshots of the
distant past. And after the endurance tests we "fossil
hunters" go through to find those glimpses of the past, it's
indeed nice to have the satisfaction of knowing that one's discovery
reveals an ancient forebear. Moreover, at times some scholars in our
field have tended to descend into uncanny bitterness and downright
skullduggery. Gibbons pulls no punches in documenting some of the
more notorious episodes, such as paleontologist Martin Pickford's
self-publication of Richard E. Leakey
Master of Deceit, a book full of allegations against
Leakey, who inherited the mantle of Kenyan paleoanthropology from
his famous parents, Louis and Mary.
Fortunately, the majority of Ann Gibbons's book is about much more
than what is advertised in the provocativecover blurb.
Contentiousness may sell books, but the subtext of what Gibbons
writes demonstrates a much more inspiring moral: Cooperation among
scientists is what really leads to further insights. That is why,
after all my nitpicking, on the whole I give this book a positive
nod. Paleoanthropology might be considered by some to be a
"competitive" sport, but nothing comes through stronger
than the message that it is a team sport in which the
"winners" provide lessons for us all. Coming in second in
the so-called "race" for the earliest human ancestor
elicits as much information as coming in first—or, I should
say, first for now.
One example is the contribution of Michel Brunet, a highly respected
French paleontologist but an outsider to paleoanthropology. His
story is one of sandstorms and amazing discoveries in the Djurab
desert of Chad. Although the pressures of such desert fieldwork
resulted in a few elements of discord, recounted by Gibbons,
Brunet's hard-earned discovery—made by his team, I must
add—and analysis of Sahelanthropus tchadensis, quite
possibly the earliest known skull of any ancestral human species, is
a tale to warm scientific hearts. Prior to publication, Brunet
consulted with many of the best and brightest minds in
paleoanthropology around the world before making any rash decisions
about the importance of his team's find. Other such examples of
cooperation in both deserts and labs abound in Gibbons's book. And
that is how science moves forward.
In the final section of The First Human, titled "The
Wisdom of the Bones," Gibbons comes into her true element as a
science writer. Despite starting with a riveting depiction of a
rather prickly academic conference in France (drama welltold this
time), Gibbons does whatshe does best: She adroitly summarizes
complex science in clear and simple terms that are the envy of those
of us who write college textbooks. She also ends by giving a wink
and a nudge to the future of paleoanthropology, but I won't steal
her closing lines. You'll have to read them yourself.
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