The Hadar Hominids
- The Making of Mankind by Richard Leakey
Joseph, 256 pp, £9.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 7181 1931 2
- Lucy: The Beginning of Humankind: The Dramatic Discovery Of Our Oldest Human Ancestor by Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey
Granada, 409 pp, £9.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 246 11362 6
It has only been recently that anthropologists have realised that their best friends are volcanoes. The ash falling from a series of eruptions can produce sequences of fossils nearly as good as those that are normally formed by silt in the sea, and their dates can be accurately measured. Skeletons preserved in this way in the Great Rift Valley of Africa have revolutionised knowledge of man’s ancestry. The first were found by the Leakey family at Olduvai in Tanzania. Expeditions were then undertaken by teams from various countries to sites further north, around Lake Turkana in Kenya, in the Omo Valley, and at Hadar in the Afar triangle in Ethiopia.
These two books describe the results of recent excavations in which the authors have been major participants. Richard Leakey is, of course, the son of a famous father and mother. Of his many discoveries perhaps the most important is the skull cautiously named only by its museum number as KNMER 1470. Until recently it was believed to be the oldest known member of the genus Homo, living 1.8 million years ago. And then along comes Donald Johanson, a young American, finding, near Hadar in Ethiopia, a whole set of hominid fossils dating back nearly twice as far, to 3.5 million years. But the work of the two groups has been by no means separate. Johanson’s chief collaborator, Tim White, was earlier engaged with Mary Leakey on excavation of footprints made by still earlier hominids 3.75 million years ago at Laetoli in Tanzania. Differences arose, however, especially over the interpretation of the fossils from Afar. As so often before, questions of naming have been involved. Those who discover interesting specimens cannot resist the temptation to have a new name attached to their fossil. In this case, Johanson and White decided that all of the Afar bones belonged to a new species, Australopithecus afarensis. But oddly they nominate as the type specimen, not one of the bones they had found, but a similar jaw from Mary Leakey’s collection made 1000 miles away at Laetoli. This has upset many people including Mrs Leakey and her son. So once again in anthropology a quarrel over names is interfering with discussion of the facts.
Johanson’s book contains much description of his finds, but it is given in a style that many will find unattractive. Indeed, it is not clear whether the book is written by Johanson at all. According to the title page, the work is attributed to ‘Donald C. Johanson and Maitland A. Edey’. The latter is ‘a former editor of Life Magazine and Time Life books’. But we hear no more of him, in the Preface or elsewhere. The whole text reads in the first person singular – Johanson. Yet if the voice is the voice of a scientist, the clothes are the clothes of Time-Life. It does not encourage one to trust the historical summary when we are told that ‘Darwin lurked in his home like a timid and anxious turtle.’ If this is the treatment given to the past, how can we be sure of the authenticity of the many verbatim accounts of discussions between Johanson and White as to the naming of fossils.
The descriptions of the expeditions and finds in war-troubled Ethiopia are dramatic, and Mr Edey has written them up well. If you liked Life, this book is for you. But there is an absurd overemphasis on the importance of these discoveries. At several points it is hinted that they may be compared to the analysis of DNA. These are indeed the oldest fairly complete near-human remains, and Johanson and his colleagues are to be congratulated on finding them. They have worked hard in giving descriptions. But these bones do not reveal any new scientific principle, nor do they fundamentally alter our attitude to our origins. Unfortunately physical anthropologists are not in a position to produce ‘hard science’, like molecular biologists: perhaps they never will be.
Vol. 3 No. 11 · 18 June 1981
From Jeremy Cherfas
SIR: In his review of Lucy by Don Johanson and Maitland Edey (LRB, 21 May), Professor J.Z. Young asks: ‘how can we be sure of the authenticity of the many verbatim accounts of discussions between Johanson and White as to the naming of fossils?’ I fear that his worries are indeed justified.
The Granada edition is, with minor exceptions, a photographic reproduction of the original Simon and Schuster edition published in the United States. The exceptions, aside from the end papers and so on, are six pages of text that mention two people – Lord Zuckerman and an American named Jon Kalb – in a less than flattering light. The US edition is more forthright on these matters than the British edition, for which references to these two people have been altered. This is not, in itself, an unusual event even in non-fiction publishing, given the benevolence of our laws to those who imagine they have been libelled. Some of the changes, however, give cause for concern, as J.Z. Young suspected.
For example, the entire book is replete with verbatim conversations, but nowhere is it suggested that these might be ‘dramatised accounts’, although at least one of the changes made for the British edition concerns words reported in direct speech. I do not mean to imply that all of the many conversations in the book have been tampered with or recalled inaccurately, but it is worrying to discover that the mere threat of a possible libel could have been sufficient to provoke Dr Johanson, or perhaps Mr Edey, into altering the words spoken by somebody who is, supposedly, a character in a real-life story rather than a novel.
Department of Zoology, Oxford
Vol. 3 No. 12 · 2 July 1981
From John Gribbin
SIR: In his review of Lucy and The Making of Mankind (LRB, 21 May), J.Z. Young comments that ‘Richard Leakey’s book costs exactly the same as Johanson’s but is worth many times more,’ and expresses concern about the emphasis placed in Lucy on one set of discoveries, and the reliability of the verbatim accounts reported therein. Jeremy Cherfas has taken up the latter point in your columns (Letters, 18 June): but what neither Young nor Cherfas has remarked on is the extent to which Lucy is an American book, white The Making of Mankind follows a strong British tradition. I suspect that the calm, authoritative tone of Leakey’s book will be as baffling to an American audience as the shrill excitement of Lucy is to a British reader, and this suspicion is strengthened by the news that the excellent TV series accompanying Leakey’s text has yet to be scheduled for screening in the US.
This echoes the difficulties Carl Sagan’s Cosmos has encountered crossing the Atlantic the other way: as disappointing as Lucy (to British eyes) in book form, Cosmos, although much acclaimed as television ‘over there’, is regarded as nothing much out of the ordinary by the BBC and has been held back for editing to suit the tastes of a British audience, even though the book has been available for several weeks. Hysterical breathlessness seems to be the vogue for ‘selling’ science in the US: happily, in spite of the parlous state of publishing in the UK, this is not the case here. Apart from any other implication of this dichotomy, it does emphasise the need for a London review of books; more seriously, it makes the point yet again that, in spite of the accident of a shared language, America, and American books, are really part of a culture as different from ours as, say, the French. Reviewers might find it worthwhile to approach books from over the water with this in mind.
Vol. 3 No. 16 · 3 September 1981
From Solly Zuckerman
SIR: I was sufficiently intrigued by Professor J.Z. Young’s review of Johanson and Edey’s book Lucy (LRB, 21 May), and by Dr Cherfas’s letter which followed (Letters, 18 June), to get hold of copies of the edition published in this country by Granada and the one which Simon and Schuster produced in the United States. Professor Young, as well as Dr Cherfas, had expressed doubts about the authenticity of implied verbatim records of discussions which the book recounts, while Dr Cherfas specifically mentioned some references to myself.
I have now examined the two pages on which my name appears, and have tried to spot the differences between the two texts which Dr Cherfas noted. There are a few, but whether or not they may, as Dr Cherfas suggests, constitute libel, they hardly matter in relation to the fact that the two pages are little better than a concatenation of errors of commission and omission, and of invention. First, contrary to what Johanson and Edey state, when I started my inquiries into the subject, I did not set out ‘to prove that australopithecines were apes.’ My explicitly stated purpose was to check the measurements and indices of the fossil teeth as published by Dr Robert Broom with the corresponding dental dimensions and indices of apes and man. If, as Johanson and Edey write, it is the case that Dr Broom, one of Johanson’s heroes, but a man he could never have met (he died in 1951), declared himself to be ‘scornful of biometry’, he should have forborne from providing dubious and generally incorrect biometric data. That, however, was on a par with the way the eccentric Broom worked. Second, I did not try, and then fail, to meet a ‘challenge’ made by the late Professor Le Gros Clark to produce a ‘full set of chimpanzee teeth’. I dismissed the idea as unreal (Nature, 1950, Vol. 166), as fatuous as it would be to try to unearth a set of fossil teeth to match Dr Johanson’s. Third, ‘professional statisticians’ did not point out that my figures had not been ‘calculated properly’. It was I who pointed out a systematic error in certain calculations which, because they applied to both sides of the comparisons I was making, made little difference to the answers that emerged. A professional statistician (Dr Frank Yates FRS) then stepped in to point out where the late Dr Jacob Bronowski, an amateur statistician whom Le Gros Clark, my ‘challenger’, had enlisted as his supporter, was off-beam in his mathematical assertions.
Nowhere in the book do the authors of Lucy refer to the stream of more recent publications that embody the results of careful scientific and biometric study of fossil primate remains, and which provide no support for Johanson’s ex cathedra claims. If this omission was deliberate, it reveals a curious disregard for the established conventions of scientific exchange. If it was due to ignorance, the verdict must be ‘scientific incompetence’. A reviewer in another journal (the Listener, 9 July) depicts Lucy as mainly an account of Dr Johanson’s dispute with Dr Richard Leakey as to which of the two had found the oldest ape-like (or whatever) fossil. In a critical review of the subject which I wrote some years ago, I said that this kind of debate is less like scientific discourse than a public auction of anatomical speculations. Lucy makes it clear that ‘show-biz’ presentations are not going to display to the world what may in fact have been the physical steps in man’s descent. Johanson is only a recent recruit to the long line of fossil-hunters who, over the years, have been driven by divine inspiration to attribute to one of their fossil finds a unique significance in the story of man’s evolution. I fear that he won’t be the last.
Lord Zuckerman, University of East Anglia