The quirky father of the 'missing link'

January 21, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance | By Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff

"The Man Who Found the Missing Link: Eugene Dubois and His Lifelong Quest to Prove Darwin Right," by Pat Shipman. Simon & Schuster. 514 pages. $28.

The way some people talk, you might think that the "missing link" was still missing.

In fact, the first fossil evidence of the "missing link" -- a transitional form of hominid that appeared between the time of modern man and the ape-like ancestors we share with modern chimpanzees -- was found in Java more than a century ago by a plucky but difficult Dutch anatomist named Eugene Dubois.

The discovery ignited heated debate in Western scientific circles. A lifetime of attacks on his find, and his science, drove the jealous, egotistical and scientifically thin-skinned Dubois into near-seclusion, if not the brink of madness. But subsequent discoveries would prove him right and establish him as a founder of the modern study of human origins.

It is Dubois' story that science writer Pat Shipman tells in this highly readable, and sometimes delightful biography.

Dubois was fascinated by the evolutionary theories that emerged from Charles Darwin and others in the latter half of the 19th century, and especially by the then-shocking notion that they might apply to humans. Quite deliberately, he decided to try to become famous by discovering the fossils that would prove that man evolved from an ancient, ape-like ancestor.

So, he gave up a safe, promising academic career in Amsterdam and wangled a medical job with the military in what were then the Dutch East Indies. He moved his young bride to the island of Java in a region he was convinced -- by geology and prior discoveries -- would yield the missing link.

Incredibly, despite the long odds, the tropical climate, bouts of malaria and the problematic use of forced labor on his dig, Dubois eventually found what he was looking for -- a partial, sloping skull with a brain capacity between that of apes and modern man, and a thigh bone very close to human.

The implications seemed clear to Dubois and to a handful of his peers: man evolved from an ape-like form that first came to stand and walk erect, and only later developed the big brain that is the hallmark of modern humans. Today, Java Man -- the creature Dubois named Pithecanthropus erectus -- is accepted by science as Homo erectus, a big, athletic creature that left Africa and first "peopled" the world. He was the immediate ancestor of our own species, Homo sapiens.

Shipman's scholarship is exhaustive, her writing engaging. She is at her most evocative when she describes colonial life in the tropics, and how the proper Dutch -- those who survived -- were entranced and seduced by the scents, the tastes, the teeming life and languid climate of what is now Indonesia.

She would seem to be in more perilous territory when she quotes directly, as she does quite often, from intimate conversations held a world away and more than a century ago. Somehow she even relays the interior dialogue -- the silent thoughts -- of some of her subjects. The book frequently reads more like a novel than a biography.

But perhaps the book's biggest flaw is Shipman's failure to include a chapter for lay readers placing Dubois' extraordinary find firmly into the context of subsequent discoveries, and modern understandings of human evolution.

Thanks to fossils and tools found in China, Africa and Europe, paleoanthropologists today know a great deal more about Homo erectus than they did in 1940 when Dubois died. It is a fascinating story, and would have shown more clearly how Dubois got it right, and where he stumbled.

Frank Roylance, a Sun science reporter, has written about space and astronomy for more than a decade. In 1994, he wrote an extensive article on the discovery of a fossil of Homo erectus in Kenya by Johns Hopkins anatomist Alan C. Walker.

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