Monday, November 7, 2011

Dean Falk's "The Fossil Chronicles"

Dean Falk is a Senior Scholar at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her books include Finding Our Tongues: Mothers, Infants, and the Origin of Language and Braindance, Revised and Expanded Edition: New Discoveries about Human Origins and Brain Evolution.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution, and reported the following:
Amazingly, page ninety-nine of The Fossil Chronicles does, indeed, capture the essence of the book. Part of the reason is because one section ends and another begins near the middle of this page. A goal of the book is to portray the twists, turns, competitiveness, and passions that have always characterized research on human origins (what I call “paleopolitics”). In this spirit, the top of page ninety-nine reminds the reader that Raymond Dart’s discovery of the famous Taung fossil (Australopithecus africanus, 1925) was dissed for decades because of turf guarding on the part of the British scientific establishment, which continued to promote Piltdown Man as the father of us all. It was not until 1953 that Piltdown was revealed as an elaborate fraud. Meanwhile, poor Dart was psychologically bloodied and paleoanthropology was impeded by the actions of the “Piltdown Committee.” Dart died a happy (old) man, though, because the tremendous importance of his discovery was recognized while he was still alive. Page ninety-nine also observes that similar turf guarding is currently involved in the intense scientific controversy about the validity of a tiny skeleton nicknamed “Hobbit” (Homo floresiensis, 2004), which was recently discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Hobbit is already changing the textbooks on human evolution, although the find is so new that the last word is not yet in. To my surprise, the acrimony over Hobbit makes the Piltdown gang look almost gentlemanly -- no small achievement.

The section that begins near the middle of page ninety-nine discusses the reactions of religious fundamentalists to Homo floresiensis, reactions similar to earlier Biblicists’ response to the discoveries of Pithecanthropus (now Homo) erectus, Neanderthals, and Australopithecus africanus. Invariably, fundamentalists suggest that important new discoveries of fossilized human relatives represent apes or pathological contemporary people -- i.e., anything but evolutionary ancestors of humans whom, they believe, were created supranaturally. I hasten to add, as does the book, that religious fundamentalists are no more invested in their explanations of human origins than some scientists are and that, in a sense, we are all asking the same big questions -- where did we come from, and where are we going? If readers of The Fossil Chronicles feel some of the excitement and drama of pursuing questions about what made us human and the thrill of refining the tentative answers in light of newly discovered fossils, the book will have achieved its goal.
Learn more about The Fossil Chronicles at the University of California Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Dean Falk's Finding Our Tongues.

--Marshal Zeringue