Review of Fossil Men: The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind by

Book cover for Fossil Men: The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind

This is one of those books where I don’t remember how it came to be on my to-read list, but I’m glad it did. Fossil Men is a book about science and history—both subjects I adore in my non-fiction reading—in a somewhat niche subject of paleoanthropology. Indeed, I wouldn’t describe this as a “pop science” book, which is usually the type of scientific non-fiction I read. Kermit Pattison, while not himself a scientist, has spent so many years on his research for this subject that he ends up presenting a text that goes far deeper than most popular accounts. While still comprehensible to laypeople like myself, the more you know about theories of evolution, paleoanthropology, etc., then the more enticing this book will be for you. As it is, I really enjoyed learning more both about this scientific discipline and what it might be teaching us about our deep, deep past as a species.

Fossil Men focuses mainly on the Middle Awash team of paleoanthropologists and related people—so named for the region of Ethiopia in which this team found the first fossils of Ardipithecus ramidus. This team, led by prickly paleoanthropologist Tim White, claimed that “Ardi” was the oldest ancestor of modern humans then discovered and indicated a link between modern humans and our more ancient ancestors, whom scientists until now assumed must be more similar to modern chimpanzees. The catch? The Middle Awash team found Ardi in 1994, yet they didn’t publish any major findings for fifteen years. Since then, the significance of Ardi and similar new fossil findings has been a subject of major dispute. What Pattison contends in this book is that these debates and controversies are, perhaps unsurprisingly, as much a result of clashing egos and human fallibility as they are a search for scientific truth. This, to me, was the main lure of Fossil Men (yeah, that’s right, I am a whore for that juicy science drama).

Pattison organizes his account in roughly chronological detail. The exception is when he dives into the past for half a chapter or so in order to explore the history of particular people of note. I found this organizational method very easy to follow. Pattison carefully charts the relationships among the most famous and well-known fossil hunters, like Tim White and the various Leakeys, or White’s estranged protégé, Don Johanson. Moreover, he ties the people to places—most notably when discussing how successive periods of political unrest in Ethiopia made it impossible for foreign paleoanthropologists to dig and also threatened the lives and livelihood of Ethiopian paleoanthropologists.

I appreciate that Pattison takes the time to highlight the colonial, Western domination of this field. For a scientific discipline depending on fossils that mostly come from Africa, the field is incredibly white (and male, something Pattison also points out). Pattison lauds White and a few others for opening doors, for making the training of Indigenous anthropologists part and parcel of their projects. And I like that, even as we learn of the oppressive and authoritarian actions of some of the Ethiopian regimes, Pattison reminds us that the country has every right to be suspicious of foreign scientists and officials extracting fossils and exploiting Ethiopia for such discoveries without giving back. In this way, Pattison touches on something that I think is well known within science but needs to be discussed far, far more often: the practice of science is racist and colonial, and we can’t justify continuing such practices in the name of “progress.” We need to rethink how we science, especially in the field, and who is doing the sciencing.

If we are rethinking this, of course, then we should also probably think about personalities and policies. Pattison doesn’t just give us a window into evolutionary history—he also shows us how hiring and admissions policies at universities, along with grant policies for institutions like the National Science Foundation in the United States, can make or break someone’s career. Similarly, his portrait of Tim White is multi-dimensional, emphasizing the man’s incredible adherence to what he perceives as “good science” and a hard work ethic, while simultaneously admitting the various judgments of colleagues and former friends who call him difficult to work with, impossible, infuriating. Should we laud and encourage a scientist with such personality issues? Or are we better off encouraging scientists who collaborate and avoid conflict? On one hand, we definitely need to avoid the excuse that “he’s difficult to work with, but he’s a genius so put up with it” (somehow almost exclusively applied to white cis men). On the other hand, constructive disagreement is an important part of doing good science. Pattison touches on—but doesn’t quite go on a tangent to discuss, which is fine—the fact that, in the past half-century, we have started to interrogate our assumptions underpinning what “science” should be. Just as the twentieth century saw science migrate from the domain of wealthy individuals to a concentrated group of wealthy academic institutions, hopefully the twenty-first century will bring a similar paradigm shift in the structural nature of science.

Ok, ok—but what of the evolutionary science aspect of the book? How was that, Kara?

It was brilliant. I learned so much from Fossil Men (and probably forgot half of it by now, lol). I can remember throughout my childhood a similar fascination as the one Pattison recounts in people like Tim White: I would eat up books and National Geographic magazines and even documentaries all about our evolutionary history. I remember whispering to myself the names of extinct genuses and species: Homo erectus, Homo habilis, Australopithecus, as if such incantation would reveal the secrets of our past to my 12-year-old self. Science never held much allure for me as a career or a calling, but I thirsted to learn more about these things. I remember the special on Homo naledi, the shift from hominid to hominin, etc. So this book really satisfies that thirst for me.

What I took away from this, thanks to Pattison’s careful storytelling, is the utter complexity of this field. It is not as simple as our textbooks and magazines pronounce—White laments through Pattison that these publications often rely on the initial announcements scientists make to get the jump on others for credit, and they seldom incorporate the retractions and corrections that follow those announcements in the years to come. So the picture we get in school and on TV is often incomplete and out of date, and scientists working in the field know about it, but we don’t get to see all the debates going on. This makes me wonder about the role of science communication in all this, and whether there are better ways to discussing these ideas in the open….

Anyway, I learned from Fossil Men that our common ancestors with chimps and other apes might not have been chimp-like. They might have been bipedal and more like us, and it might be chimpanzees, gorillas, etc., whose ancestors, having split from our common one, evolved along the lines we now see these species representing. That seems to have upset a lot of long-held theories in paleoanthropology, so it’s cool to hear Pattison explain how people like Gen Suwa and Owen Lovejoy were able to piece together this possible explanation based on teeth and bones and all sorts of other expertise. Again, I’m just filled with this admiration and awe for the work that scientists do to try to uncover things about our distant past. They don’t always (maybe even seldom) get it right or get the whole story, but it’s undeniable that in the past centuries we have gone from knowing almost nothing about the origins of our species to having a great many plausible theories.

If you like science but more importantly like stories about how science is done, you will like Fossil Men. At times technical, at times biographical, at times political, this book is far more than a “here’s how they did it,” and it preserves the awesomeness of these discoveries without lionizing the discoverers. Pattison ultimately concludes that science is a tenacious and enduring process, yet the scientists themselves are fallible.

Engagement

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