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
SIR: A distinguished medical historian recently wrote that one of the most prevalent diseases amongst writers today is their habit of providing long lists of works of reference with the contents of which they are almost totally unacquainted. Mr James Paradis, in ‘Voyagers’ (LRB, 18 June), suffers from an acute form of this disease, since he has not even troubled to read the title of at least one major work of reference he cites. In his rambling review of Charles Lyte’s popular and useful Sir Joseph Banks he refers to ‘the substantial collection of Banks material catalogued by Warren Dawson in 1958 that is currently held at Kew Gardens’. The title of this massive compilation of 965 pages is The Banks Letters: A Calendar of the Manuscript Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks Preserved in the British Museum, the British Museum (Natural History) and Other Collections in Great Britain. Mr Paradis’s astonishing lack of knowledge of the man to whom Professor Hunter Dupree, in a recent review of books on Banks by Mr Lyte and others (Nature, 28 May 1981), refers as the leader of the European scientific community for over forty years may be summed up in his statement that ‘Banks liberally applied his wealth to assemble a parlour society of gentlemen amateurs, natural philosophers, foreign visitors and artists.’ In the field of botany alone Banks built up a herbarium that became, according to Dr W.T. Stearn in his recent history of the British Museum (Natural History), ‘one of the most extensive, and possibly the most extensive, in the world’. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, of which Banks was unofficial director, together with one built up by his contemporary Dr John Fothergill, who provided an additional trained collector to join Banks’s staff on the Endeavour (Lysaght in Notes and Records of the Royal Society, in the press), were unequalled by any botanic garden in Europe. Anyone who has studied in depth some of Banks’s correspondence with the physiologists, systematists, geologists and anthropologists of his time – to restrict oneself to only a few of the fields that held his interest – will be amazed at the effrontery with which Mr Paradis dismisses his intellectual abilities.
SIR: I am puzzled that my TLS review of David Lodge’s Working with Structuralism should have upset Frank Kermode so much (LRB, 20 August), and I should like to remove the extremely misleading impression he has given of what I said. One would gather from his comments that my review was an attack on David Lodge. It was not: it was an appreciation, both of this book and of Lodge’s earlier criticism, with some sceptical reservation on points of doctrine. It is all the harder to understand what Kermode’s fuss is about since his eventual conclusions are exactly the same as mine: that David Lodge is an interesting and valuable critic who has made very moderate use of structuralist methods, and has hardly integrated them at all with his critical writing in other modes.
As for the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, no one who is interested in these matters needs to be told that it is open to discussion. I called it a battered dogma: 1. because it is a dogma, a central one, as Kermode himself remarks, to Saussure and his latterday disciples, and 2. because in its unqualified form it has been cogently attacked by Jespersen, Benveniste, Jakobson and others. This amounts to a pretty formidable battering. In any case, what I was taking exception to was the literary conclusion derived by structuralists from this linguistic doctrine – a conclusion that is certainly not necessary, and, to my mind, not even plausible. I think I made this plain, but Kermode studiously avoids allowing it to appear by cutting short his quotation from my review before the point is reached.
This is not Frank Kermode at his best: and one of the reasons so many of us are sick of the very word ‘structuralism’ is that for the last ten years it has been generating these fretful aberrations in otherwise scrupulous and sensible people.
SIR: In his interesting review of John Redcliffe-Maud’s memoirs (LRB, 6 August), C.H. Sisson makes the following strange remark: ‘One has some sympathy with those of Maud’s colleagues who thought, he tells us, that the Arts Council took too much of his time, and … the more since there is nothing in the book to suggest that he had even a glimmering of foresight as to the political meaning of [this organisation].’ I hope Mr Sisson can be prevailed upon to let us all into the well-kept secret of the ‘political meaning’ of the Arts Council. What sinister schemes are being hatched behind the blandly well-meaning ‘front’? The Council has been brilliantly successful in persuading us that it pretends to nothing more harmful than giving grants to Covent Garden, and the National Theatre, not to mention the London Review of Books and Poetry Nation Review, of which of course Mr Sisson is a distinguished editor.
Open University, Milton Keynes
SIR: Sean O’Faolain (LRB, 6 August) takes all hunger strikers, lumps them as savages without proper history, and with supreme arrogance – a great failing hereabout (and thereabout) – and probably never having been the victim of anything more than burnt bacon – dismisses all their different real and horrid circumstances in a cool learned splodge of linguistic goo. If only he knew the truth about the Power and Protest of which he talks so glibly!