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Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins Paperback – August 16, 1997

ISBN-13: 978-0226476513 ISBN-10: 0226476510 Edition: 1st
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

No area of science has a higher incidence of colorful personalities than paleoanthropology. The Leakey family and Donald Johanson are merely the best known of a vivid and contentious bunch that have not hesitated--indeed, have made every effort--to air their conflicts before a wider public. Roger Lewin's recently updated Bones of Contention is the only reliable field guide to these scientists, their characters, and controversies. Lewin never forgets that hominid fossil discoveries always involve both the self-image of humanity and that of individual scientists. Lewin is uniquely evenhanded (i.e. he thinks everyone is wrong from time to time), yet the all-star blurbs on the cover show that he retains the respect of the entire paleoanthropological community.

From Publishers Weekly

In this compelling, readable book, Lewis (Thread of Life, etc.) inquires into the controversies and "paradigm shifts" that have marked the views of evolutionists Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, T. H. Huxley and others in the era that witnessed the discovery of the bones of Neanderthal Man (1856); as well as such modern-day theorists and field-workers as the Leakeys (Louis, Richard and Mary) and Donald Johanson, who found the bones of "Lucy." Covering the history of the hunt for fossil evidence supporting Darwin's argument for man's "descent," he shows through superb research and lively interviews how profoundly subjective the views of scientists have been whenever they have tried to determine when, how and why humans ("hominids") branched off from apes. Here are descriptions of African fossil-digs, arguments about the naming of fossil finds, ego-clashes between the likes of Richard Leakey and Donald Johansonnone of it destroying evolutionary theory itself, but all of it, with insight and submerged humor, showing how all-too-human science can be. Photos. Macmillan Book Club alternate.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 366 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press; 1 edition (August 16, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226476510
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226476513
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,422,157 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By makapan2000@geocities.com on April 24, 1999
Format: Paperback
Bones of Contention is one of the best books I have read pertaining to paleoanthropology. I cannot believe no one has reviewed this book yet, that no one is really interested in this topic; (they're probably all off reading Lucy, which is kinda outdated by now, and so is Origins by Richard Leakey). It is very revealing, clarifying the world of the search for our ancestors. Once you read this book, you'll never think paleoanthropology is a hard and inflexible science.
I have a human evolution site for beginners
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on March 15, 2001
Format: Paperback
Lewin has undertaken a formidable task in relating the issues, personalities and technologies involved in tracing the path of human evolution. Dealing with such giants in the field of paleoanthropology as Mary and Richard Leakey, Don Johanson and others would be daunting to anyone lacking the confidence in his abilities. His aptitude is clear to the reader as he walks a tightrope in presenting the complex topics involved in this story. Nearly all the persona are still with us, and it's to Lewin's credit that he manages to compose this story without blackening anyone's reputation.
Tracing the line of our ancestors is becoming an increasingly involved process. From skimpy fossil records, scattered over remote locations around the globe, researchers are striving to understand which line depicts the path of our evolution and which branches have split off to expire without further contribution. Once the evidence lay with bones, how they were formed, changed, and contributed to resulting modern humans. Lewin recounts that the fossil record is no longer enough, and advanced technologies can tease out answers from the most subtle clue.
Lewin's account of Misia Landau's study of paleoanthropologists as perpetrators of "hero myths" is a splendid beginning. Because the basic issue is: "how did we become the way we are", then all the stories on human evolution begin at the end - today's human. The "big names" in the field each addressed this question with vigour. Each interpreted the evidence with force, but not always based on what the evidence warranted. It surely follows that "contention" is an inevitable result. There simply weren't enough fossils to realistically trace the human lineage.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By J. P. Rushton on May 16, 2000
Format: Paperback
This is science journalism near to its best, picking up the important themes in a way that educates even professionals in related fields (I'm a psychologist who writes about human evolution). Unlike anthropologists themselves -- probably the most fractious of academics I've ever met -- Lewin at least gives the appearance of trying to be fair to all the different positions. Of course he is politically correct and probably talks too much about the social context and people's motives but the main elements in the intellectual debates do come across. The discovery of Dart's australopithecene and its aftermath (traced forward for decades) was my favorite. A second favorite was the dethroning of ramapithecus when it was found that homanids only went back 5 million years rather than 15 million. Lucy's discovery is always good press and so is mitochondrial Eve. Too bad Lewin won't be treating us to a third edition in the near future for the field surely needs a good updating. Then I'd just love it if he turned his talents to my own area of research, the IQ controversy. But I doubt he would ever do that for that is much too dangerous territory for a liberal who wants to remain honest....
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Sarevo100 on December 26, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Roger Lewin, in "Bones of Contention", has earned for himself the title “Whistleblower of Paleoanthropology.” He gives us an insiders’ view and paints a picture of a “science” given over to wholly subjective interpretations of the evidence, and prima donna egos run amok. Lewin’s book focuses mainly upon the conflict of opinions between the Leakeys and Donald Johanson (the Leakeys asserting a very ancient origin for the genus Homo and Johanson a more recent one). I am personally more interested in the science but it is a very valuable lesson Lewin teaches about the role of subjective interpretation in science. Lewin sums up the world of paleoanthropology on pg. 19 by noting: “The anonymous aphorism ‘I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it’ is a continuing truth in science.” In other words, scientists see what they WANT to see. The actual raw data, unfortunately, cuts an enormously wide path for personalities given over to subjectivism to play around with. Lewin notes on page 23 that there are “a limited number of fossil sites to work, and a still pitifully small inventory of fossils to analyze,” and on page 194 (regarding the famous skull 1470): “At a conference in Nairobi held in September 1973 they presented 41 separate age determinations on the KBS Tuff [where the skull was found] , WHICH VARIED BETWEEN 223 MILLION AND 0.91 MILLION” years of age. What Lewin does NOT tell his readers is that such variation of radiometric dating results are the RULE across ALL of the scientific disciplines which use radiometric dating. The protagonists pick the dates they like and discard the rest of the dates that don’t conform to their pet theories, in this case 40 total other dating results discarded (!) based upon wholly subjective considerations. The trade secret of modern “science” is that radiometric dating is entirely useless and based on layer upon layer of assumptions.
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