Book review of "The First Human"

8 minute read

Despite all the trouble I had traveling (or maybe because of it), I got to have a really enjoyable time finishing Ann Gibbons' new book, The First Human. For a while I was really afraid I'd lost it in the backpack without knowing how it ends! But what a relief, it was in another suitcase so I can report on the whole thing.

I've read most -- not all -- of the recent trade books about paleoanthropology, and this is definitely one of the top few in terms of being fun to read. It follows a familiar form: the quest for the source of the Nile. The book even mentions Burton and Livingston, whose explorations were to some of the earliest anthropologists what the Leakeys discoveries were to the current generation. Like the quest for the solo transatlantic flight, the summit of Everest, or the race to the Moon, the paleoanthropologists here all are trying to capture the same prize: the earliest hominid.

The book appeals in large part because it is well-written. Instead of beginning with the long dry history of finding bones in old dry places, Gibbons' first chapter plunges us right into the middle of three discoveries of the mid-1990's -- all happened within six months of each other, but the events of January 1995 brought them together. The chapter even ends with a cliffhanger!

Then comes the long dry history, with the usual cast of characters: Haeckel, Dubois, Dart, Louis and Mary Leakey. I was apprehensive about this -- no book ever seems to skip this stuff, and it's usually the same boring slog -- but Gibbons adds some details that most people haven't seen before. She's mercifully light on the "Dart courageously fighting the scientific establishment" theme, and brings us a great description of Dart excitedly opening the crate containing the Taung fossils at a friend's wedding. We get rather less of Louis Leakey's long struggle for recognition and more of his behind-the-scenes support from LeGros Clark.

Most notably, Gibbons brings us sketches of many of the paleontologists that the usual accounts miss. We see Bryan Patterson find not one, but two of the earliest hominids, and the episode that caused him to leave Kenyan field work, with his site of Kanapoi lying fallow for 30 years. We are led down the blind alley of Ramapithecus with Elwyn Simons and David Pilbeam. And we follow Yves Coppens to the Omo, Hadar, and Chad. Indeed, one of the real highlights is the account of field research in Chad, which I haven't seen described elsewhere in English so well.

The soap opera really begins with the origins and education of the current fieldworkers, who are as interlinked as characters on Days of our Lives. Pilbeam plays a Kevin Bacon-like role connecting Michel Brunet, Andrew Hill, and Martin Pickford. Pickford and Richard Leakey were old schoolmates, and -- maybe or maybe not, according to the book -- Hill comes between them. The chief fossil hunter from Hill's team goes to work for Pickford. The son of the chief fossil hunter for Richard and Maeve Leakey goes to work for Hill.

We see quite a bit less of the soap opera in Ethiopia, which describes the current Middle Awash work extensively but has little to say about Hadar or other current field sites. Donald Johanson's perspective on events of the last twenty years is very noticeably absent. We see Mary Leakey's anger at White and Johanson for naming her Laetoli discoveries Australopithecus afarensis, but the section does not explain the justification for the anger -- attaching the name to LH 4 as the type specimen removed any chance of naming the Laetoli hominids anything else.

Ian Tattersall raised an important point in his Nature review of the book: Any reporter who depends on access to subjects faces a possible conflict of interest. Report bad things about the subjects, and they may restrict access. Gibbons has obviously received exceptional access to some of the book's subjects -- indeed, the book mentions the famous lack of journalistic access to some of the research teams. Has this exceptional access affected the narrative?

I think that the book has a fair account of many events, but omits other well-known incidents that might have been described. For most of these, there is little that Gibbons could have done -- after all, if some subjects don't talk to you, and others won't give details about certain events, then what are you going to write about? In fact, there must be an intense incentive for many people not to cooperate with a book like this, especially those hoping to continue fieldwork in Ethiopia or begin there in the future. The accounts that are in the book make quite plain that one misplaced word can result in field permits being revoked, or access to collections being revoked, or even worse. As a result, the book puts on the record many arguments that were aired in public -- like the dispute over the Galili field site, for instance -- but doesn't necessarily give the whole story.

There is pretty obviously one overarching prize that shapes the entire narrative. The introductory chapter ends with the world on Alan Walker's "tenterhooks" -- in 1995! -- waiting to see the Ardipithecus skeleton. The book describes on four occasions just how fragile the skeleton was. Twice we hear how the condition of the skeleton "tempered" the Middle Awash team's excitement, twice it is described as "the most fragile skeleton ever found," twice as "roadkill." Early in the book White emerges as a secretive Svengali; at the end -- during an event White himself describes as "theater" -- we see him casting aside the velvet curtains to show his specimen at last to his skeptical colleagues.

Except, well, we don't get to see it. A reader might be forgiven for thinking the obviously crushed skull on the book jacket is the centerpiece of the book -- its "crushed" skull is twice mentioned. Sadly, no, the cover shot is just Sahelanthropus. Ardipithecus is still locked in its fortress of solitude, unseen by the unwashed. This does raise some concern for me -- since Gibbons will undoubtedly be writing the story of this fossil when it at last surfaces.

But some of the best moments are those that shine light on the relationship of the science to journals and the media. Two of the major research teams make a point of rejecting the taint of National Geographic and its film crews. In counterpoint, the book repeatedly notes the long association between National Geographic and the Leakey family, including a direct contrast between the histories of Richard and Maeve Leakey and Tim White. Amid descriptions of media-savvy scientists, we see Henry Gee, editor of Nature, commenting on fossils, prognosticating on future discoveries, "prodding" researchers, and having one incredible meeting that was hard for me to believe even after reading it. If one wonders about possible conflicts of interest for Gibbons, how much more must one wonder about the chance of one of these papers being rejected by Nature's vaunted six "peer reviews"?

At its bottom line, the book really raises two substantive issues. The first is the real danger of today's field work. Paleoanthropology is not merely a game today, it is "the Great Game" replayed. Field teams divide up "Connecticut-sized" research territories, hem opponents into areas with younger sediments, and -- when bullying, scientific name-calling, and bureaucratic manouvers fail -- finally agitate local people, enlist bandits, or pull their guns. To me, the book's most touching moment is its description of Michel Brunet's feelings after losing a colleague on his field team. In another episode, a young graduate student (who deserves recognition for her science and not this) personifies a near-miss with violence in the field. The two cases together bear rereading: if paleoanthropology continues along its current path, then who can doubt that some people will be killed in the field?

The other issue is the relationship between these field teams and the science as a whole. As depicted in the book, they clearly do resemble explorers looking for the source of the Nile. They know what the goal is -- at one point, Pilbeam even sketches what the ancestor will look like, at another Henry Gee opines about it. It is still out there waiting to be found, and these teams will be searching until they find it. It's "the First Human" of the title.

But these fossils aren't human -- and it's darned hard to tell whether they are even the more humanlike kind of apes! In the book, we see that the science turns against the scientists sometimes. Ramapithecus is no longer considered hominid by anybody -- it's not even a valid taxon anymore. Louis Leakey's Kenyapithecus wasn't a hominid either.

Can it be that all of these new fossils are really hominids? Or have some of these scientists in their quest for older and older fossils overshot the mark? The current scientific debate over specimens is only glossed here -- the book sketches what the disagreements are, but gives no details to judge the arguments. (If you want those details, you'll need to read the blog!) Instead, the science appears as another forum for the scientists to misbehave -- accusing each other of holding "creationist positions" and the like.

Many readers will surely be puzzled to read how these men and women, who brave disease, bullets, broken families and years of denial, can be so poorly composed in the face of scientific examination. Again and again we see them squirrel the fossils away, withdraw them from the world, or give up on paleoanthropology altogether. How can it be that this story is repeated so many times? But the reader should consider: No one can take away Hillary and Norgay's summit photos. But even after all the years of work, the lowliest graduate student might turn one of these "hominids" into an ape.

Even I make a brief appearance in this book -- blink and you'll miss me dancing through to aggravate Brunet's heart condition.