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Java man. The missing link. Peking man. Homo erectus. If these names from the history of humanity are familiar to readers today, it is partly due to the superhuman persistence of a 19th century Dutch physician named Eugene Dubois. He single-handedly tied human beings with evolution and abstract theories with fossil-hard facts. He turned chance fossil finding into a systematic science and helped bring the science of paleontology to public attention. That his own name is now unknown is both ironic and unfortunate. Pat Shipman’s dynamic new biography should help restore Dubois’ name to a body of work that a century of time has erased.
Dubois was born in 1858, in between the discovery of the first Neanderthal skeleton and the publication of Charles Darwin’s“The Origin of Species.” Many of Europe’s leading scientists were eager to connect the Neanderthal skeleton with Darwin’s theories in order to say that mankind had evolved from lower, primate-like forms. Evolution is revolution, writes Shipman, and the idea that earlier models of human beings once roamed the Earth was radical stuff — scientifically, politically and socially.
Such thinking electrified the young Dubois. In medical school, he cast aside convention and Catholicism to focus his attention on a new Holy Grail: finding the transitional form — the “missing link” — between man and monkey. He realized finding it would be the discovery of the century, and he decided it would be possible to systematically search for it. No one had ever done that before; scientists had simply waited for farmers and miners to stumble across interesting old bones.
Armed with a medical degree and a self-confidence that his colleagues and even his parents found unfathomable, Dubois abandoned his academic career, took a commission in the Dutch army and dragged his family off to the distant colonies. Dubois focused on the tropics as the best place to search for the missing link. Monkeys live in the tropics; early man probably did too. (Fortunately, the Dutch had colonies in Indonesia so Dubois would not have to work in British Africa or Raj India.) For five years he endured steamy jungles, hungry tigers, malaria and uncooperative coolies. In 1891 his confidence and endurance were rewarded with the discovery of a skullcap, a molar and a femur. The fossilized parts once belonged to a creature that was not quite human and not quite ape. Dubois had found his missing link. He named it Pithecanthropus erectus. (It’s known today as Homo erectus or Java man.)
Dubois returned to Europe expecting acclaim from his colleagues and the literate public. He got that, but he also got the usual ivory tower questions about his methods and conclusions. Worse was the outright rejection of the whole missing link concept by many scientists, priests, politicians and common citizens.
If all politics is local, then all science is personal: Every scientist has a personal stake in the correctness and importance of his or her data and ideas. Dubois’ personal defense of “P. erectus” — and himself — became relentless, and not a little pathological. Embittered and exhausted over the battle for his missing link, he hid the bones from other researchers for two decades. Dubois’ personality may have been well suited for the solitary work in Java, but it was a fatal handicap in the lecture halls of Europe. It buried his life’s work.
In Shipman’s well-crafted narrative, Dubois emerges as a modern scientist so driven by his convictions that he destroys his relationships with his wife and children, his best friends and his supportive colleagues. The story of his personal quest for the missing link sounds like a novel and reads like one, too. Shipman writes in the present tense and from Dubois’ perspective. This may not be biography or history in the strictest sense, but it is good storytelling. The effect is an intimate and engrossing portrait of a man who sees himself as a dedicated scientist, smarter and harder working than everyone else. Yet he is also hypersensitive, paranoid and suspicious. Other people baffle him. Social and professional events that don’t go his way leave him annoyed, outraged, offended or deeply hurt.
Dubois’ daughter burned a great deal of material she did not want published about her father. As a result, Shipman has had to work around “intriguing omissions” and, as Dubois did, reconstruct a living creature from fragmented remains. Dubois is a kind of missing link himself — a once-tangible tie between the end of unquestioned Biblical revelation and the discovery of our hominoid history written in fossilized bone. A lesser writer trying to resurrect Dubois might have been content to serve up a passionless textbook of dates, geological terms and academic arguments about paleontology. Shipman, a Penn State anthropologist, could have done that too. But she is also an accomplished science writer whose previous books have won numerous prizes. This one should too.
Edward McSweegan is a skeptical microbiologist and occasional science writer.More Edward McSweegan.