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Intrigue, deceit and fierce competition are characteristics we do not usually associate with scientific inquiry

The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution

by Dean Falk
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2011
280 pp., illus. Trade & eBook, $34.95 USD
ISBN: 978-0-520-26670-4; ISBN: 9780520949645.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


Intrigue, deceit, and fierce competition are characteristics we do not usually associate with scientific inquiry. The Fossil Chronicles reads like a thriller novel in many parts:  Who would think that discussion about the cranial capacity of a skull could be such exciting reading? This is partly because Falk is an excellent writer and partly because the stakes of finding missing links in human evolution are extremely high. As she writes, “When it comes to the subject of human origins, scientists have been every bit as passionate about their convictions as religious fundamentalists are” (p. 194).

This book concentrates mainly on the discovery of two fossils: Taung, discovered by Raymond Dart in Africa, and The Hobbit (aka. Flo) discovered by Michael Morwood in Flores, Indonesia. These two contentious fossils caused extreme controversy because they were so unique and because they challenged existing concepts of human evolution and origins. “If readers 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, I will have achieved my goal in this book.” (p. 2)

The Fossil Chronicles has an Introduction followed by nine chapters, together with extensive notes and an excellent Bibliography and Index. Extensive black & white illustrations and diagrams help explain the subtleties of paleoneurology. Much to my joy (and surprise) Falk provides a Glossary of Neuroanatomical Terms that is very helpful, considering some of the specialised scientific terminology used throughout the book. Even with the complex science involved in the description and discussion of cranial endocast analyses the book is equally suitable and accessible to scientists and the general reader.

Dean Falk is a Professor of Anthropology at Florida State University and a Senior Scholar at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe. She brings her rather unique specialisation in human brain evolution to the analyses of these two above mentioned fossils and gives new evidence crucial to interpreting both discoveries and proposes surprising connections between this pair of extraordinary specimens. She has authored two previous books concerning our origins and the nature of human brain evolution. Paleoneurology is a specialised discipline within paleoanthropology that studies brain development as revealed by marks, size, and peculiarities present in cranial endocasts, both physical and virtual.

As with most other organisations, academic life has its petty politics; however, paleopolitics raises this pathetic situation to a whole new level. “In addition to “age-old jealousies, ideology, and the quest for personal power,” turf guarding often seemed to motivate the negative receptions to new hominin discoveries.” (p. 98) It is a shame that the personal agendas and gigantic egos of many scientists actually hold scientific inquiry back. The actions concerning new fossil discoveries by some of the scientists described in this book are morally despicable, and in the corporate world would be grounds for dismissal, disgrace, and possibly criminal charges. Falk discusses the now infamous Piltdown fossil hoax, not extensively, but enough to provide the facts behind this absurdity that has held back the advancement of human-origin scholarships in many subtle ways.

I bring this paleopolitics deceit to readers’ attention because, firstly, the general public is not fully aware of its existence and, secondly, it occupies a large part of Falk's discussion. To give her credit though she always remains positive and tries to give a balanced account of the situation and the scientists she discusses where possible.

What puzzles me is how professional academics can falsify raw data and then deliberately bias the analysis of this data to support their own entrenched beliefs and be allowed to continue their work after they have been shown to be frauds? Even when they have published in Nature or Science and subsequently been asked to “Please Explain” by these prestigious journals. Further, in many cases the funding, and consequently the scientist’s employment, comes from public funds. To whom are these cheats morally responsible, it seems no one, not even themselves?

The Fossil Chronicles is a fast paced, highly enjoyable read, and apart from the knowledge that Falk brings to the non- anthropological aware reader, the exposition of the workings of academic, institutionalised science may help reduce the bitter rivalry and advance the understanding of our origins.

Last Updated 3 March 2012

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